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China entrepreneurs cash in on air pollution

Gigantic domes to play in, fancy masks and even cans of air from other regions have come to market since fine particulate matter went off the charts in China.

February 02, 2013|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Chinese millionaire and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao hands out cans of air during a publicity stunt on a day of heavy air pollution last week at a financial district in Beijing.
Chinese millionaire and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao hands out cans… (Associated Press )

BEIJING — Bad air is good news for many Chinese entrepreneurs.

From gigantic domes that keep out pollution to face masks with fancy fiber filters, purifiers and even canned air, Chinese businesses are trying to find a way to market that most elusive commodity: clean air.

An unprecedented wave of pollution throughout China (dubbed the "airpocalypse" or "airmageddon" by headline writers) has spawned an almost entirely new industry.

The biggest ticket item is a huge dome that looks like a cross between the Biosphere and an overgrown wedding tent. Two of them recently went up at the International School of Beijing, one with six tennis courts, another large enough to harbor kids playing soccer and badminton and shooting hoops simultaneously Friday afternoon.

The contraptions are held up with pressure from the system pumping in fresh air. Your ears pop when you go in through one of three revolving doors that maintain a tight air lock.

The anti-pollution dome is the joint creation of a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of outdoor enclosures and a California company, Valencia-based UVDI, that makes air filtration and disinfection systems for hospitals, schools, museums and airports, including the new international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

Although the technologies aren't new, this is the first time they've been put together specifically to keep out pollution, the manufacturers say.

"So far there is no better way to solve the pollution problem," said Xiao Long, the head of the Shenzhen company, Broadwell Technologies.

On a recent day when the fine particulate matter in the air reached 650 micrograms per cubic meter, well into the hazardous range, the measurement inside was 25. Before the dome, the international school, like many others, had to suspend outdoor activities on high pollution days. By U.S. standards, readings below 50 are considered "good" and those below 100 are considered "moderate."

Since air pollution skyrocketed in mid-January, Xiao said, orders for domes were pouring in from schools, government sports facilities and wealthy individuals who want them in their backyards. He said domes measuring more than 54,000 square feet each cost more than $1 million.

"This is a product only for China. You don't have pollution this bad in California," Xiao said.

Because it's not possible to put a dome over all of Beijing, where air quality is the worst, people are taking matters into their own hands.

Not since the 2003 epidemic of SARS have face masks been such hot sellers. Many manufacturers are reporting record sales of devices varying from high-tech neoprene masks with exhalation valves, designed for urban bicyclists, that cost up to $50 each, to cheap cloth masks (some in stripes, polka dots, paisley and some emulating animal faces).

"Practically speaking, people have no other options," said Zhao Danqing, head of a Shanghai-based mask manufacturer that registered its name as PM 2.5, referring to particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrograms.

The term, virtually unknown in China a few years ago, is now as much a feature of daily weather chitchat as temperature and humidity, and Zhao's company has sold 1 million masks at $5 each since the summer.

Having China clean up the air would be preferable to making a profit from the crisis, Zhao said.

"When people ask me what is the future of our product, I tell them I hope it will be retired soon," Zhao said.

A combination of windless weather, rising temperatures and emissions from coal heating has created some of the worst air pollution on record in the country.

In mid-January, measurements of particulate matter reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of northeast China. Anything above 300 is considered "hazardous" and the index stops at 500. By comparison, the U.S. has seen readings of 1,000 only in areas downwind of forest fires. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that the average particulate matter reading from 16 airport smokers' lounges was 166.6.

The Chinese government has been experimenting with various emergency measures, curtailing the use of official cars and ordering factories and construction sites to shut down. Some cities are even considering curbs on fireworks during the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, interfering with an almost sacred tradition.

In the meantime, home air filters have joined the new must-have appliances for middle class Chinese.

"Our customers used to be all foreigners. Now they are mostly Chinese," said Cathy Liu, a sales manager at a branch of Villa Lifestyles, a distributor of Swiss IQAir purifiers, which start at $1,600 here for a machine large enough for a bedroom. The weekend of Jan. 12, when the poor air quality hit unprecedented levels, the stock sold out, she said.

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