AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Think about some of the things that spew nasty contaminants into the air - automobiles, power plants. How about leaf blowers? Those annoyingly loud, gas-powered, backpack-like machines are about to pass cars as the worst air polluters in California. David Gorn has the story from Los Angeles.
DAVID GORN, BYLINE: Noe Bautista, now 46, has worked on gardening crews his whole life...
(SOUNDBITE OF LEAF BLOWER)
GORN: ...Inhaling the fumes up close, the formaldehyde, benzene and particulate matter.
NOE BAUTISTA: It's pretty bad. You've got to be smelling all the smoke all the time. And it really cause you a lot of health problems - allergies and getting sick all the time.
GORN: Bautista tries to get his crew to wear face masks, but most young Latinos won't use them partly because, he says, there's really no way to keep out those fumes.
BAUTISTA: You can feel the gas smell right away. And you have a headache right away with all that smoke.
(SOUNDBITE OF LEAF BLOWER)
GORN: That pollution from small gas engines - leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, gas mowers - it's not just dangerous for workers. It's dangerous for everyone. According to Michael Benjamin at the California Air Resources Board, in just three years' time, the biggest single ozone polluter in the state of California is going to be all this gardening equipment.
MICHAEL BENJAMIN: We expect that ozone-contributing pollutants from small-offered engines will exceed those same emissions from cars around the 2020 timeframe.
GORN: I know, it sounds hard to believe - more pollution from leaf blowers than cars. But in California and across the country, regulations on car exhaust have gotten tighter and tighter over the years, substantially reducing their ozone-damaging emissions - not so with small gas engines, says Benjamin at the Air Resources Board. And with 16 million of them cranking up across the state, all that pollution adds up.
BENJAMIN: Unless ARB adopts more stringent controls, emissions from this category are going to really become much more significant relative to cars.
GORN: Some states and regional air quality districts do have incentive programs in place to try to get homeowners to switch from gas to electric machinery. But California is considering a step beyond that - to require much lower emission standards for gas engines and to offer major incentives for landscaping businesses to change over to electric. At an expansive backyard in western LA, one business is already starting.
DAN MABE: And push down the top, and pull the bottom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC MACHINERY)
GORN: Dan Mabe runs the American Green Zone Alliance, and he's trying to reach those small, mostly Latino landscape crews. Here, he has a wide lawn full of equipment spread out for Noe Bautista and his workers to test.
MABE: Oh man, this thing can rip (laughter). I'm telling you. It rips.
GORN: Mabe says this is more than an air quality issue. And it even goes beyond the respiratory problems of many gardening workers.
MABE: You can call it environmental justice. It was a demographic that wasn't really being addressed.
GORN: As head of this crew, Bautista, for one, is ponying up the cash now and making the switch not only for health reasons, but since electric equipment means no more buying gas, he thinks he might even save a little money. For NPR News, I'm David Gorn in Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY SONG, "NICA'S DREAM")