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Pollution in China: The Business of Bad Air

It is 2:35 on a Wednesday afternoon at the International School in Beijing. A neat line of orange cones and soccer balls await a class of kindergartners who shed their bright neon backpacks after arriving and immediately stream onto the field in disarray. Their coach manages to corral them just long enough to explain the first drill. Then they sprint off to follow his commands.

Before long they are out of breath. But they are not out of air. Because this is China—which this year endured pollution so toxic that it triggered a month-long official national health emergency—that is possible thanks to an emerging industry built on cleaning the increasingly poisonous cloud that envelopes the nation’s cities.

At the beginning of January a deadly haze hung over Beijing day in and day out for more than a month. The acrid smell of pollution permeated the air. Even those hiding indoors could not escape it. From classrooms to cafeterias, from lobbies of buildings into elevators up to the top floors of Beijing’s many massive high-rises, down into the subways, the bad air seeped in and stayed put.

The pollution was the worst since 1954, according to the state-run newspaper People’s Daily. It was the worst ever since the US Embassy in Beijing started to measure pollution levels in 2008 using the air quality index (AQI) as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The index defines pollution levels in terms of “particulate matter” (PM) in two sizes. Of specific concern in China is a PM with an aerodynamic diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in size, or one-thirtieth the average width of a human hair. PM 2.5 is small enough to travel down into the lungs and bloodstream and potentially cause severe damage in the organs.

When air-quality experts talk about pollution many say the best way to conceptualize it is in terms of concentration. The AQI does this: it quantifies the density of air pollutants in parts per cubic meter, using a scale that measures PM 2.5 levels from zero to five hundred. According to the EPA, a reading above three hundred and one designates an extremely hazardous emergency situation. On January 12, 2013, the US Embassy’s reading was seven hundred and fifty-five—“beyond index” or “crazy bad.” (This term apparently originated when designers creating the Twitter feed for the embassy programmed the tweet in jest to read “crazy bad” in what they assumed to be the impossible event that the air was above five hundred, or literally off the charts. The term was tweeted twice before being deleted, although the term itself remained colloquially in use.)

Prolonged pollution at these severe levels is now a frequent occurrence, but if it cannot be controlled, it can, in entrepreneurial China, be combatted. In fact an entire industry is being created for this task. The conflict between bad air and good may seem a little like the arms race between the superpowers during the height of the Cold War in that there seems to be no end in sight. But this much is clear: bad air has become good business and has created an increasing demand for products big and small.

 

Start with the most elemental and widely used product. In January 2013, during the worst of the air, the search term “mask” skyrocketed by more than five thousand three hundred percent, according to online Chinese retailer Taobao.com. Throughout the month, when twenty-four out of the first twenty-nine days were defined as “hazardous,” an estimated one hundred thousand masks were sold every day in Beijing alone. At the high end is the Respro Techno mask—a Darth Vader–like model that covers the face from the nose down. It retails for about $56 and is especially popular with China’s large expatriate community. At the low end are the most basic cloth masks, placed over the nose and mouth and fastened loosely around the ears. Often also used to prevent the spread of illness, they are sometimes decorated with a flower or geometric print and sell for less than $5 each.

The masks are a flimsy Band-Aid for what has become a cancer of bad air over the last decade. As a result, a demand has emerged for far more sophisticated anti-pollution measures filled by entrepreneurs like Chris Buckley. Arriving in Beijing in 2000 with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Oxford and a mild case of asthma, Buckley sought out an air purifier, something few people used at the time. As the air worsened and his asthma improved—because of the purifier, he believed—he saw a business opportunity.

On the day I visited his Torana Clean Air Center in central Beijing, his employees were unpacking new shipments of air purifiers nonstop. Buckley opened his first store in Shunyi, a Beijing suburb popular with expats. Then he opened a second store in central Beijing that caters to natives as well. He sells Blueair purifiers, by the Swedish clean indoor air firm of the same name, that range in price from about $550 to $2,000.

In the past two years his sales have quadrupled. Buckley says that during the worst three weeks of bad air his business spiked to five times normal demand: “We could have sold more, but the manufacturer could barely keep up with demand.”

The booming bad air business is caused not just by the bad air itself but also the government’s reluctant admission that China has a pollution problem. In 2012, in response to growing public pressure, Beijing started to regularly monitor and publish its own AQI readings for air around the country. Now there are more than eighty monitoring systems in place in China’s major cities and this year, for the first time, officials issued emergency warnings and allowed pollution to be covered on state-run television. Because the Chinese use an AQI scale that is slightly different from the one used by the American Embassy, the Chinese government reading is typically a few notches below the US reading. Regardless, the government’s actions have encouraged environmental awareness and therefore demand for Buckley’s products.

“We are finding many of our Chinese customers are now well informed about the air pollution,” he says. “That is quite a change from six months ago.”

The day I visited his store his employees were loading an order for thirty high-end purifiers by a Chinese company. The company would not authorize Buckley to tell me its name and refused my request for an interview. He said large-scale orders from Chinese corporations are unusual but welcome. But when I asked him where he hopes his business is in ten years he immediately replied, “Out.”

“Out?” I asked.

“Out of business,” he said. “I hope China cleans up its air.”

 

Throughout the recent pollution scare in Beijing, there was not a single public protest demanding the government take action to clean up the air. During that time, in fact, Beijing did not even rank in the top ten worst polluted cities in China. According to CCTV, the state-run television network, that distinction went to Shijianzhuang, in Hebei Province. But there were no protests reported in Shijianzhuang either, or anywhere else for that matter.

This is not to say that they did not occur but rather that they were not given the name. In February 2013, a Chinese court found sixteen protesters guilty of “property damage and theft” during an environmental demonstration that turned rowdy in the city of Qidong last July. The group opposed plans for a new pipeline that would carry waste from a paper factory. They were sentenced to up to a year and a half in prison. Thirteen were granted a reprieve for admitting guilt, according to the Xinhua news agency.

There is one well-known environmental activist in China the government leaves alone. Ma Jun is the founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a nonprofit agency that compiles government data made available to the public on companies that are in violation of China’s environmental laws and safety standards. By publishing this information in a user-friendly format, Ma has encouraged many companies to change the way they do business. As public awareness, and outrage, increases (however unreported it may be), he sees an entirely new industry on the horizon.

“China needs to clean up,” he says. “That will create a huge business. [But] it won’t be a good business without transparency.”

James McGregor, a senior counselor at APPCO worldwide and author of One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China, says cleaning up China’s pollution will be a business opportunity for the world and for China. “China is waking up to the fact that cleaning up the environment will mean business and economic growth,” he says. “[But] this is going to take a cultural shift. In China people take care of their own. There hasn’t been a consciousness of taking care of all of society.”

Multimillionaire Chen Guangbiao, a self-styled environmental warrior, has attempted to spotlight the problem with a smart-aleck product to draw attention to the pollution in his country: canned air.

The provocative flavors of the cans his company produces include “pristine Tibet” and “post-industrial Taiwan.” When asked why he chose those names Chen says only, “Those are the only places left in China that don’t have heavy industry or chemical factories!”

A gregarious and outspoken campaigner, Chen is unafraid to say he believes the Communist Party’s entire environmental department should be fired for poor job performance. During the worst of the pollution this year, Chen says he gave away two hundred and thirty thousand cans of air. Hundreds of thousands more were sold for five yuan each (about eighty cents) by an army of volunteers, each of whom he paid approximately sixteen dollars a day. His net was close to $1 million. He says he is using the proceeds to buy bikes for people in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangzhou to help cut down on carbon emissions.

“When I was a little boy the sky was blue with white clouds and full of stars at night,” Chen says. “I could see fish swimming in the river and drink water from the wells.”

It’s a vision of a China he hopes his two children will experience one day. And in fact they aren’t excluded from his extravagant promotion efforts. He announced recently that he has re-named them Chen-Environment and Chen Environment Protection. And he hopes one day they will join him in his next business venture: clean soil for farming.

 

Despite Chen’s air-can gimmick, clean air doesn’t come cheap in China. According to Dr. Gerrick Monroe, the International School of Beijing’s Chief Operating and Financial Officer, the air the children were breathing during the soccer practice I witnessed cost approximately $2.4 million dollars to create.

These kids can breathe easily, but they are not kicking goals under a blue sky. When they look up, they see a massive white (US-made) tent made of “triple skin translucent” Tedlar fabric. Stretched tightly, eighteen meters above the soccer field, it also covers an adjoining court large enough for a game of basketball. It is one of two “domes” (as they are called) on campus, the second one holding six tennis courts. Each dome is a clean air safe house—the first of its kind in China. On cold winter days, the children also are able to play there in t-shirts and shorts.

Last year, ISB had thirty-seven indoor recess days, according to headmaster Tarek Razik. That meant that on thirty-seven days the air was deemed too dangerous for students to go outside. “This bothered me,” Razik says. When kids don’t blow off steam it is bad for the teaching environment. So I said, ‘What can we do?’”

He knew of one school in Beijing, Dulwich College, that built a massive, tent-like structure for indoor activities. On a visit to a New Hampshire campus in the US he came across a similar version the school used for sports during the state’s famously frigid winters. Razik thought if he could build something like that, adding a top-notch air-filtration system, he might make his students happy and save a lot of teachers from “going nuts.”

Razik convinced the school board to fund two domes. (He says he would “dome the whole school” if he could.) Working with a task force created specifically for the project, ISB asked the manufacturer of the New Hampshire dome, Air Structure American Technologies Ltd., to find an air-filtration partner. They found UltraViolet Devices, Inc. (UVDI), of Valencia, California, which was providing air filtration for Los Angeles International Airport. Together the two companies brought Razik’s vision to life. Construction was completed in eight months.

In addition to creating a healthy, year-round clean air environment, Razik may have unintentionally kick-started an entirely new demand. UVDI says inquiries for similar structures have already started to come from throughout China.

Stepping into the dome, I immediately understood why this is an idea whose time has come in Beijing. Passing through a single revolving door, the first thing I noticed was a new smell. My ears popped slightly adjusting to the pressure. But within a minute I was taking luxuriously deep breaths of air, which had a slight new-car smell due to the still-sparkling tent above.

Razik’s excitement was obvious, though he shrugged off any credit. “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It is common sense.”

 

In Beijing there is already a growing demand for systems similar to the International School of Beijing’s among hotels and the estate-like private homes that are the signature of the growing legions of newly rich. Broad Air Technology Company says it recently installed air-filtration systems in every villa in Bishui Gardens, an upscale suburb in northern Beijing. The company promises the air inside your home will be up to five hundred times cleaner than the air outside on bad days. That kind of luxury costs a hefty price. For homes up to approximately thirty-two hundred square feet, the starting price is approximately $4,000. For homes up to twice that size (not a rarity), the price jumps to $10,500. But in China the very wealthy do things on a very grand scale. The cost of clean air in a single private home can run as high as a quarter-million dollars. It’s conceivable that instead of private security personnel, astounding artwork, or a surround-sound multimedia system, the most coveted sign of wealth in China may soon be clean air.

For now the pollution problem has leveled the playing field between wealthy and poor. To a certain extent it has done the same between the people and the party. It is, after all, one of very few universally shared discomforts in China, although one that has not yet worked its way firmly into communist ideology.

When Xi Jinping gave his first speech as China’s new leader, he mentioned the environment just once. It came at the end of a long list of what the party thinks the people want: “Our people love life and expect better education, more stable jobs, better income, more reliable social security, medical care of a higher standard, more comfortable living, and a more beautiful environment.”

Those last four words are a very small foundation to build on in predicting when, and if, a national environmental action plan will be adopted, or what it would look like.

Programs to curb overcrowded highways are slowly being put in place and the worst factories are under stricter watch, if not shut down altogether. These are initial steps in what experts say will be at minimum a decade-long process of improving the air. But for now, in a lesson about the relative power of individual initiative and centralized control in solving social problems that will be ignored by officials, entrepreneurs in the business of bad air are arguably doing far more to protect the people here than the government.

Judging by the government’s history of ignoring festering problems and its grim determination to maintain economic growth whatever the costs, even those who are proud of how far China has come worry the cleanup will be too little, too late. “If our health is the cost,” asks Ma Jun in a rhetorical question that is on everyone’s mind, “then what is the point?”

Gloria S. Riviera is a correspondent for ABC News. Xiao Kaijing also contributed reporting to this article.

 

Photo Credit: axz700 / Shutterstock.com

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