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PM2.5's masks, made by the Shanghai company Sinotextile. The company formerly made underwear and sportswear.

Sinotextile CEO Zhao Danqing stands among rows of his company’s newest product: face masks labeled ‘PM2.5.’

You can tell a lot about a place from a dinner party. In LA, the banter around the table gravitates around traffic and driving routes. In DC: beltway politics. And in Beijing and Shanghai, more and more dinner guests are asking each other: so what kind of air filter do you have?

Oliver Moore shows me an air filtration machine the size of a small refrigerator. He heads the Shanghai office for IQ Air. IQ Air machines have become air filtration status symbols in China. They’re efficient, they’re made in Switzerland -- synonymous with clean, alpine air -- and at $1,600 a pop, they’re not cheap. But when a toxic cloud the size of Alaska engulfed China’s eastern seaboard, price became irrelevant. People just wanted to breathe air that wasn’t full of carcinogens. "Instead of fifteen to thirty people contacting our office a week, it may have doubled and some cases tripled," says Moore of IQ Air's recent business in China. The company has sold out of its units in China. Orders are on a two-week backlog.

Bad air has also meant that other companies in China that formerly had nothing to do with cleaning up the air are suddenly shifting their business strategies. Sinotextile CEO Zhao Danqing opens up his company’s newest product: a plaid cloth facemask with a removable filter. "Last year when the air over Northern China started to get really bad, we produced a huge number of masks and launched an aggressive marketing campaign," Zhao says.

It was around the time when ‘PM2.5’ became a buzzword in China. The term refers to pollution particles small enough to enter your bloodstream -- the air over Beijing has been full of them lately. Zhao’s company, which typically makes underwear and sportswear, bought the trademark for the name PM2.5, and now, his masks are among the top sellers in China. Boxes of them line every open space inside the company’s office in Shanghai. "Two weeks ago when the air was really bad, our website crashed from all the traffic," says Zhao.

But for some, masks and filtration machines just don’t cut it. For around a quarter of a million dollars, you can buy a clean air dome to put over your backyard, giving it the look of a football stadium. Xiao Long sells those. "We’ve had calls from rich people who want to cover up their backyards so they can exercise on polluted days," Xiao says.

Xiao heads Broadwell Technologies. For years the company specialized in building covered domes so that sports fields could be used in the winter. He says he never expected his company’s big break would come when it entered into a joint venture with a California company to add huge air filtration machines to the domes. "We’ve received several dozens of calls a day from schools and government bureaus in charge of sporting events that want to buy our domes," says Xiao.

An international school in Beijing has bought two of Xiao’s clean air domes, and orders are piling up from other cities, he says. Just months ago, Xiao managed 40 people. He’ll have a staff of 200 handling all this new business come springtime. It’s an industry with a seemingly endless horizon in China.

As long as that horizon is obscured by charcoal gray smog.


We imagined what other cities around the globe -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Paris -- might look like with Beijing-level air pollution. View our smog simulator.               

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

Sinotextile CEO Zhao Danqing stands among rows of his company’s newest product: face masks labeled ‘PM2.5.’

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