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China pollution

China’s air pollution provides inspiration for ‘smart’ face mask

Beijing-based Brit was so concerned about the city’s air quality problem that he set up his own company to find a solution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2017, 10:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 4:22pm

Anyone who’s been to Beijing is likely to have experienced a bad air day: that kind of heavy pollution that leaves a smoky smell on your clothes and a nasty taste in your mouth.

While most people deal with the problem by staying indoors and complaining, Englishman Christopher Dobbing decided to do something about it.

After seeing the way pollution was affecting Beijingers – especially children – the Cambridge University graduate began researching the subject and set himself the task of finding an effective face mask. When his search came up blank, he decided to solve the problem another way, by launching the aptly named Cambridge Mask Company.

Dobbing lives in Beijing with his wife and seven-month-old daughter, so he’s never been keener to create products that provide effective protection against air pollution.

His latest range of “smart masks” can be linked to a phone app that tells users not only when they need to be worn, but also when the filters need replacing.

The company’s products are now sold around the world, but the story began in right here in China.

What first brought you to Beijing?

I moved out here in the summer of 2012, originally to work as an education consultant. I was going to a lot of Chinese schools and interviewing students. Many of them were complaining about breathing problems and most of them carried inhalers. Some of the younger students even coloured the sky grey instead of blue when they were drawing pictures. It just struck me, and was quite upsetting to see. When you got to grow up in the countryside of rural England, it was quite a departure to see that, and personally I don’t believe any child should think it’s normal to grow up coughing all day or think it’s normal to carry an inhaler.

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How did you go about researching the air pollution problem?

In January 2013, there was a big spike in air pollution that lasted for a couple of weeks and ended up being dubbed the “airpocalypse”. I came before that, so a lot of people were aware of air pollution, but it was quite an abstract concept. Mentions of air pollution on Chinese social media were blocked at the time, so you weren’t even allowed to discuss it or measure it publicly. A lot of that’s changed now, so it’s fine to talk about it. That makes things a lot easier in terms of creating a public understanding and improving public health, which is very important. After the spike in January, I became very aware of the problem and started looking up academic journals and reading all the news on the subject. Suddenly I realised just how serious a health risk air pollution poses. I did a lot of research to learn more about the issue and the global scale of the challenge, and ended up starting to distribute pollution masks.

There are many companies making air masks. What made you think you could offer something the others didn’t?

I couldn’t find any that were up to international standards and suitable for children. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to start producing my own masks and make sure that children had something that could protect them. My own daughter lives with me here in Beijing, so I wanted to make sure that when she grows up she can get out and enjoy life without looking like Darth Vadar, which is what happens with some other masks.

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Was air quality something you thought about when you decided to raise a child in Beijing?

It was certainly a consideration, although once you have a good air purification system set up at home, and masks to wear when you go outside, you mitigate a lot of the risk. You have to do what you can. Beijing is an incredible city, there’s loads to see and do and so many great opportunities, it’s a global city so it’s a wonderful place to live – apart from the air pollution.

What was the inspiration for your new smart mask?

The question almost every customer asks is when should I change the air filters, or when should I get a new mask. It’s a very difficult one to answer. We give a guideline and say it’s roughly every three to six months. We realised the sensing technology that had become available had become quite good and compact, and we were able to actually fit it inside the mask.

What proportion of your customers is based in mainland China?

It’s about a third at the moment. When we started it was mostly expats, but we’re selling more and more to local Chinese [as well as to international schools, international hospital groups, embassies and corporate clients]. It’s like with cars – you can choose to get something basic, or if you want the extra performance you can invest a little more and get something that has a better offering. The technology was actually developed by the British military for use in chemical, nuclear and biological warfare protection.

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Your promotional video was set in London – what was the reason for that? Are you expecting a lot of people there to buy the masks?

Well, yes. London is a pretty major market for us. Research from King’s College shows that a Londoner’s life expectancy is cut by about 16 months due to air pollution. It’s quite a significant problem and something the city is having to work very hard to tackle.

How have attitudes towards air pollution changed in the five years you’ve been in China?

With the more technical parts of air pollution, like PM2.5 for example, most people in the UK won’t really understand when you start talking about that. But even taxi drivers in China, if you say PM2.5 to them, they can talk about it and they know all about it. The level of public awareness is very good, and the level of public education is pretty good as well. It’s a very visible problem, you can’t really hide it when the pollution is terrible and you can’t even see the building across the street. During a big pollution spike if you’re not wearing a mask and you step outdoors you can just feel it in your throat and burning in your eyes. It was a very typical expat thing to be talking about – moaning about – air pollution, but now everyone, including the Chinese, is very aware of it.