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Gas-powered lawnmowers pose pollution threat

We all know cars and power plants are big polluters, but there's another, less obvious source of southern California smog, and it may be right in your own backyard. Believe it or not, your gas-powered lawn mower is much more polluting than your car and even your s-u-v, and there are 52-million mowing lawns nationwide. As Rebecca Tolin reports, San Diego County is trying to get those old gas guzzlers off the green, at a time when the landscape industry is booming.

Sean Wistrom, Home Depot Lawn Equipment Specialist: "You've got to have a nice-looking yard because that's one of the main presentations, so if you spend all this money on a home, boy you're going to want to keep your yard in tip-top shape."

Green grass -it's almost synonymous with BBQ's and baseball. The lawn has become an American icon.

Rob Hotz, Gas Lawnmower Owner: "I think I got it probably from my parents when I got married and bought my first house. It's like welcome to home ownership."

Now Rob Hotz is in the routine of mowing his lawn every two weeks. The San Carlos homeowner uses a Murray gas-powered mower. Like many people, Hotz likes the power and convenience of gas.

Hotz: "I know the gas ones are polluting. I know they're not great for the environment. But honestly, until the manufacturers come out with something that I feel is usable and convenient, I'm probably not likely to change."

Not all lawn mowers are created equal. Milan Kovacevic prefers a quieter, cleaner electric model - a 19-inch Black and Decker. The San Diego man doesn't miss buying and handling gas. Mainly, he wanted a more environmentally friendly choice that cuts down on pollution.

Milan Kovacevic, Electric Lawnmower Owner: "Global warming, lung cancer, just smog, I like to do everything I can to reduce air pollution. Not only that, but it's a lot more pleasant to use. It's quieter than a gas mower."

Most electric mowers make about half the noise as gas, but how much pollution could a gas mower really make?

Ron Roberts, County Supervisor: "We're trying to drive home the point, when you're using these, it's far worse than even driving your car. It's like having a whole fleet of cars on the road. And at this time of year we find a lot of people are out cutting their grass maybe once or twice a week and it creates a lot of pollution."

Ron Roberts is a County Supervisor and member of the California Air Resources Board. He says one standard gas mower makes the same amount of pollution as forty cars. Think of it this way, operating a gas mower for one hour produces as much pollution as driving a brand new car 340 miles.

Roberts: "Healthy means you don't have those pollutions that cause everything from cancers to asthma attacks to other things we're seeing. It's a health issue."

Roberts says excessive smog causes health problems and even premature deaths. While San Diego is improving, the county still violates standards for clean air. In 2005 we exceeded state levels on 16 days. And air monitoring showed federal violations on five days last year. And the American Lung Association recently gave San Diego an 'F' grade for ozone and particle pollution.

Roberts: "It's really about cleaning up the air. It's about making San Diego a far healthier place and in a very small way people who want to go out and cut their grass can make a difference and can help us by getting rid of the gas-powered mowers."

The county is trying to weed out the old mowers by offering incentives. At an annual event, 400 residents can trade in their gas fired relics for a new Black and Decker electric mower. The cordless, battery- rechargeable lawn cutter normally sells for $449- dollars. Residents with a trade-in pay only $150. California actually leads the nation in making lawn equipment cleaner. New rules will soon ban gas tanks made from plastic and other gas permeable materials. They allow fumes to evaporate. That's one reason why gas is so much more polluting than electric.

Tolin: But gas mowers are also much more popular. "Well, it looks like the vast majority of your mowers are gas."

Wistrom: "Yes, that's what most people go with."

At Home Depot, the gas models far outnumber electric or manual mowers. Sean Wistrom says at this Clairemont branch, they sell eight times more gas mowers than electric.

Wistrom: "This is what they're more familiar with. They believe they're a lot more powerful."

Tolin: "Is that true?"

Wistrom: "They are a bit more powerful, but then again, those electric motors are getting much better. And they're equivalent. This Black and Decker we sell is equivalent to a 5.5 horsepower gas motor, so they're actually very powerful."

Employee: "Alright, ready to go."

Michael Flynn, Electric Mower Buyer: "There it is."

The electric is powerful enough for Michael Flynn, who is buying a plug-in Black and Decker.

Flynn: "I've never had electric before, but it's easier to handle and fits in the space the we have to put it and it's less polluting."

Kovesevic agrees. He even bought an electric weed wacker. Kovesevic admits there can be downsides to electric. His $200 Black and Decker has a cord, which means he can't go farther than 100 feet from the outlet. And there's always that obstacle in your grass.

Kovacevic: "That's the downside as far as convenience. You have to plug it in and not cut the cord and electrocute yourself! That's the challenge. But I find it's workable."

Hotz: "The problem I've always had with an electric mower is you end up mowing the cord. You end up running over it or you're wrapped up in it by the end of your experience."

Hotz would rather avoid a cord, and stick with his trusty gas model. But Kovacevic feels any inconvenience is well worth the environmental benefit.

Kovacevic: "I recognize what I'm doing is just miniscule, but I view it sort of like voting. If enough people do it, something can happen."

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