SALT LAKE CITY — As scientists discover more negative health effects linked to poor air quality — from diabetes to dementia — products created to help people track and mitigate bad air’s effects are growing in popularity, industry experts say.
Over the past two years, pollution mask companies, including Salt Lake City-based O2Today and U.K.-based Cambridge Mask Company, expanded operations in the United States and Europe in response to wildfires and a growing awareness of air pollution in urban areas. New home air filters, such as the Molekule air purifier, and personal air quality monitors, such as Flow from Plume Labs, are being introduced to the market every year.
The target audience is huge. According to the World Health Organization, 91 percent of the world’s population was living in areas that did not meet guidelines for healthy air pollution levels as of 2016. The Global Wellness Summit listed healthy breathing as one of the top eight trends for 2018 within the $3.8 trillion wellness industry, and TechSci Research estimates the global market for air purification devices will reach $29 billion by 2021.
Today, demand for such products mostly comes from Asia, where cities like New Delhi and Beijing are infamous for their air pollution problems, Fast Company reported. But as Americans start to think more carefully about what goes into their lungs, air quality accessories could one day become as mainstream here as fitness trackers and nutrition apps.
“Air pollution has always been a problem in our developing world, it’s nothing new. In fact, it was a lot worse years ago,” said Nina Griffee, communications representative for Cambridge Mask Co. “What is different these days is our ever-growing knowledge of the health repercussions this can cause us.”
Cambridge masks, available for $30, are designed to be used for pollution, wildfire smoke, chronic illnesses such as COPD or cystic fibrosis, allergies, air travel or protection from viruses and bacteria, Griffee said. Made from military grade activated carbon cloth treated with silver, the masks are meant to be worn over and over again.
A Reuters analysis predicts the global mask market will grow over 30 percent by 2022. While U.S. customers are some of Cambridge’s biggest buyers, wearing a mask in public is not the social norm here as it is in other countries.
“There is no question that adoption is slower in the United States than many countries in Asia where the public has been wearing air masks for years,” said Bruce Lorange, founder and CEO of O2Today. “A key challenge is that there is a social stigma in the U.S., and people don’t like to stand out or to be presumed to be sick themselves.”
Lorange thinks it will gradually become more socially acceptable for Americans to wear air pollution masks, in the same way wearing bicycle helmets or carrying water bottles has become the norm. But he doesn’t expect masks will ever be a fashion statement here, as they are in countries like South Korea, China and even Poland.
For O2Today, the priority is making masks that are affordable ($20), allow people to breathe comfortably and are easy to maintain with machine washability and changeable filters. But that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t care about style.
“The only known way to limit exposure to harmful particles when outdoors is the use of a mask with an effective filter and fit,” said Lorange. “People should have the option of selecting effective masks that are not construction or medical-looking in nature that better fit into their modern lifestyle.”
Griffee agees. That’s why Cambridge masks come in at least 15 different colors and patterns, from pandas to plaid.
Bo Call, air monitoring manager for the Utah Division of Air Quality, warns that wearing a pollution mask can have the negative effect of making it harder to breathe and putting stress on a person's lungs. Therefore, he recommends masks only be worn when particulate pollution is very high, or there is visible dust or smoke from wildfires.
More pricy than face masks, home air purifiers can range from $65 to $800. These devices are built to clean the air in individual rooms of a house.
“The nature of the market warrants the development of new technology at lower-than-ever prices, making air purifiers a more accessible and affordable appliance to have at home,” said a customer service representative for Levoit, a company that produces air purifiers as well as humidifiers and salt lamps.
Levoit, based in Orange County, has air purifiers that range from $80 to $320 depending on the model. The devices help with allergies or other respiratory issues by filtering particles as small as 0.3 microns. The filtration system removes dust, pollen, smoke, dander and even mold spores, which are harmful to people's health, the representative said.
Purifiers from San Francisco's Molekule are at the top end of the price range at $800. The product's claim to fame is that instead of filtering and collecting particles like other purifiers, Molekule supposedly removes and air pollutants and destroys them using nanotechnology.
According to Jaya Rao, co-founder and chief operating officer of Molekule, the filters also eliminate ozone, one of the main ingredients in urban smog, in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.
"Purifying the air in your home not only means a safer environment for you and your family, but other benefits can include better breathability, better sleep, healthier skin and potentially improved cognitive functionality," Rao said.
Personal air quality testers
If you’re accustomed to looking up daily air quality levels for your city, you might question why a personal air quality monitor might be useful.
But according to Tyler Knowlton, communications representative for Paris-based Plume Labs, pollution varies hyper-locally.
“The reality is what you breathe can change dramatically from one street to the next, one park to the next, one building to the next,” said Knowlton in a press release.
Users can attach Plume Lab’s small, $179 monitor, called Flow, to a bag or clothing. With GPS tracking and the capability to measure nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, Flow and its companion app let users see a minute-by-minute breakdown of the pollutants they are exposed to throughout a day.
“We hear over and over from parents and active commuters who walk their kids to school or cycle to work every day just how much pollution affects their health — and how little information they can find to avoid it.” says Romain Lacombe, founder and CEO of Plume Labs.
According to Call, however, readings on personal devices can be easily influenced by humidity and temperature conditions and are not nearly as accurate as the large monitors maintained by research organizations or government air quality agencies. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful tools to help people get a general sense of local air quality trends, he said.
"If you have five devices in an area and they all start to go up, there's probably a reason for that," he said. Call recommends people interested in buying a personal air quality monitor check a site called AQ-Spec that shows the accuracy of different devices.
Nic Barnes, chief marketing officer for Awair, a San Francisco-based company that makes indoor air quality monitors for homes that range from $95 to $179, said social consciousness around air quality is growing.
“Whether it's because you have a new child, or you have allergies or even because you have trouble sleeping, the understanding that something invisible can actually be harming you and your family is becoming more commonplace,” said Barnes.