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Cutting Air Pollution


If you want to be on the cutting edge of pollution control technology, be advised there's a long waiting list. The backup is not at the local recycling center, or even, for the moment, at the auto emission testing stations. It's the competition for free battery-powered lawn mowers that cut the air pollution and noise as they cut your grass.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is one of 10 utility companies nationwide that will each distribute 100 battery-driven mowers in a government-industry project to see how much electric mowers reduce pollution from the smoky output of 80 million gasoline powered mowers now in use. It's an admirable goal, because gasoline turf-trimmers cough out more smog-creating chemicals in an hour than driving an auto 50 miles. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment accounts for a significant 4 percent of hydrocarbon pollutants in the air, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates.

Trouble is, the electric company doesn't know when it will get the mowers and whether it will trade them free for old gas models, which EPA will then test. BG&E; has been swamped by calls from volunteers, but there's no distribution plan yet.

Public interest is understandably driven by the hope of getting a new mower for free. These same battery mowers are selling slowly at retail stores, primarily because of their $500 price tag and one-hour power limit. They run cheaply (6 cents a mow), don't require an extension cord and are half as noisy as a gas burner, in addition to being cleaner, but those features won't overcome the disincentives.

Most consumers won't voluntarily pay more for appliances that are gentler to the environment unless the equipment offers other genuine advantages. Only with enforceable laws, based on sound science and demonstrated human needs, will a cleaner generation of equipment come into popular use. California has set pollution limits for garden equipment engines, and EPA is testing off-road gasoline engines to issue future air-quality rules. The electric mower giveaway calls attention to the need to go beyond autos and smokestacks to curb pollutants, but it has little hope of nurturing a grassroots demand for such devices.

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