Seeing is believing, so in the case of toxic air it can be hard for many people to be motivated enough to protect themselves. Despite appalling figures for air quality in many UK cities, this invisible killer, which speeds up the end of life for many thousands of people each year, doesn’t feel like it is getting the attention it deserves.
Things are starting to change though with awareness growing and cities introducing steps to reduce air pollution. Fashion brands too are seeing an opportunity to tap into this desire for people to protect themselves, both inside and outside, from this silent killer.
During the famous London smogs of the 1950s, people could see how polluted their air was, today, things are very different with micro particles from traffic pollution being sucked into our lungs and causing long term damage.
The death rate for a lifetime of exposure to microscopic PM2.5 particles created by diesel engines, coal burning power stations, wood fires, agriculture and building sites is rising in almost three quarters of London boroughs. Scientists say that tiny particulate pollution is especially dangerous as the specks of dirt can be absorbed deep into the lungs, then seep into the bloodstream contributing to heart and lung disease, cancer and aggravating asthma. London’s air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 9,000 early deaths each year.
Left - Airinum - Urban Air Mask 2.0 - £55
In 2017, the worst locations in the UK for nitrogen dioxide pollution was Kensington and Chelsea, followed by Leeds and Doncaster. Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. It also estimates that seven million people die each year from exposure to such pollution with the majority in low and middle income countries in Asia and Africa, with India being one of the worst culprits.
When Alexander Hjertstrom visited India he was inspired to start his own company to tackle air pollution. ‘Airinum’ founded in 2015 and based in Sweden, specialises in stylish protective face masks. The name is a merger between ‘air’ and ‘inum’, taken from platinum, to signify the highest quality of pure air.
When Hjertstrom moved from Sweden to India his long-gone asthma had started to come back. He realised he was becoming another victim of air pollution. After searching for a means to protect himself, Alex found that wearing an anti-pollution breathing mask was the most effective way. To his surprise, the majority of the masks on the market were very basic and far from perfect in their construction. Their designs were primitive, reminiscent of the masks worn by dentists or miners. Not something you would want to wear everyday.
“The reason the topic has gained interest lately is due to increase knowledge and awareness fuelled by media highlighting some recent studies showing the detrimental impact that poor quality air has on health.” says Hjertstrom, CEO of Airinum.
“WHO listed air pollution as one of the largest health risks we face today, killing more people than Malaria and HIV combined. Once the public start to realise that this is a ticking health bomb, similar to the effect of when people realised the impact of smoking, new measures will be taken.” he says.
“The ‘Airinum Urban Air Mask’ is a high-quality mask designed to effectively clean the air for the wearer. The key thing is our masks offer very high filtration efficiency and thus protection, high comfort with dual exhalation valves and fully face-adjustable straps for a snug fit, and durable & high-quality design with washable & anti-bacterial treated skin and replaceable filters.” says Hjertstrom.
People in Asia, most notably Japan, have been wearing personal pollution masks for many years, but, will Airinum be able to get the rest of the world to?
“The rest of the world is slowly but steadily getting convinced.” says Hjertstrom. “We sell to NY, Paris, Milan and even Stockholm, today.” he says. “As the product become less ‘must use personal protection equipment’ and more of an lifestyle accessory (or necessity), the barrier gets lower and the acceptance level increases. With celebrities around the world using the Airinum masks of course helps, as it destigmatised the mask from ‘weird’ to something cool instead.”
Right - Airinum - 3 additional filters cost - £12 - The working life of a filter depends on many factors such as the pollution level in your surroundings. On average Airinum filters last 100 hours but they advise to change every second week for hygienic reasons
The Mayor of London has recently introduced his ULEZ - Ultra Low Emission Zone - clean air zone in Central London and the British government has put off the majority of urban drivers from buying diesel cars, but what can we do as individuals and will pollution masks become the latest fashion accessory?
“Recently catwalks in Tokyo, Seoul and Paris all had models wearing masks. This shows how this item is slowly becoming part of the everyday fashion outfit, just like a pair of sunglasses.” says Hjertstrom.
When Stella McCartney unveiled her new flagship Bond Street store, last year, it was the first to offer its customers and staff cleaned air. The first indoor commercial space to do so, the ‘Airlabs’ filter is designed to protect both shoppers and store workers from gas pollutants present inside and outside of the store, in particular nitrogen dioxide from diesel fumes on busy Bond Street.
A unique installation of custom-made filters into the store’s ventilation system cleans more than 1800 m3/h of air with very low energy consumption due to the filter’s innovative structure. it removes 95 per cent of the air pollutants and harmful gases and particulate matter inside through a hidden ventilation system with a nano carbon filter.
Sophie Power co-founded Airlabs in 2014 after realising the dangers of air pollution posed to babies and children when she was pregnant with her first child. Sophie became acutely aware of the fact that in the UK, especially in cities, we breathe high levels of nitrogen dioxide, primarily from diesel fumes, as well as other harmful pollutants. The levels we breathe here cause stunted growth of lungs in our children – a study in East London of 8 and 9 year olds showed their lungs were 5-10% permanently smaller when exposed to poor quality air. The younger the child, the more they are affected and most affected are those in the womb.
More than 2 million Londoners live in areas that exceed legal limits for NO2, including more than 400,000 children under the age of 18. More than 50 per cent of London’s toxic air is caused by vehicles. On realising the extent of pollution in London, Sophie left her job in finance to co-found Airlabs together with Professor Matthew Johnson, a Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen.
Today, Airlabs is comprised of a team of atmospheric chemists, airflow engineers and sensor developers based in London and Copenhagen dedicated to clean air solutions. They say better air quality can significantly increase workplace productivity as well as health outcomes, offering potentially revolutionary opportunities for hospitals, schools, office buildings, professional drivers and shops.
"Science is catching up with the reality, which is that the impact of air pollution on people's health is much worse than previously thought. Epidemiological studies take many years, in particular for health effects that develop over many years of exposure. More and more results from these studies are becoming available, feeding into the media news cycle. This has led to a growing public awareness of the issue. A challenge remains how to find out when you are exposed and at what level." says Marc Ottolini, CEO Airlabs.
"That's why we are working on small but highly accurate air quality sensors, with the aim of having one on every corner of the street. When you buy food, a label will tell you what's in it. We need something similar for the air that we breathe. People have the right to know.” says Ottolini.
"Our technology is generating a lot of interest within the retail sector and we have been approached by a number of retailers from shopping centres to stores looking for a clean air solution." he says.
Things are getting worse before they get better. The risk of dying from long-term exposure to London’s polluted air has risen for a second year running. The rate of fatalities linked to breathing in killer particles went up from 6.4 per cent to 6.5 per cent in 2017 according to computer modelled estimates from government body Public Health England. That followed a jump from 5.6 per cent the previous year.
The facts seem to be clearer than the majority of air most of us are forced to breathe in on a daily basis. There’s a helpless feeling of not knowing exactly what we are breathing in and when, and while we could wait for others to sort it out, it seems that we should be taking things into our own hands. Could anti-pollution masks become as common place as SPF and cycle helmets? People in Asia have been wearing masks for many years and we’ve often looked at them skeptically, but now it’s making more sense to follow their lead. If a brand or designer can make this a desirable and ‘cool’ trend, we could start to see many more masks on our streets.
“Hopefully, the more people that start masking up, the sooner our politicians can wake up and create policies that can speed up the cleaning of our air and ultimately our planet as a whole.” says Hjertstrom.
Below - Airlabs technology inside London's famous taxis