BEIJING — Bad air is good news for many Chinese entrepreneurs.
From gigantic domes that keep out pollution to face masks with fancy 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 a giant 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.
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 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. “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 fine particulate matter reached 650 micrograms per cubic meter, well into the hazardous range, the measurement inside one of the domes was 25.
Since air pollution skyrocketed in mid-January, Xiao said, orders for domes were pouring in from schools, government sports facilities and wealthy individuals. He said domes measuring more than 54,000 square feet each cost more than $1 million.
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 $50 high-tech neoprene masks with exhalation valves to cheap cloth masks.
“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 company has sold 1 million masks at $5 each since the summer.
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.
The Chinese government has been trying various emergency measures, curtailing the use of official cars and ordering factories and construction sites to shut down.
In the meantime, home air filters have become 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 with Villa Lifestyles, a distributor of Swiss IQAir purifiers, which start at $1,600 for a machine large enough for a bedroom.