New Gadgets Help Pollution-Weary Chinese Breathe Easier



Air pollution in China is a persistent and nagging problem. The WSJ’s Alyssa Abkowitz speaks about some new devices that help Chinese people breathe easier. Photos, clockwise from bottom: CoClean, Ecovacs, Broad Group

BEIJING—Some pollution-weary Chinese consumers have moved beyond stocking up on home air purifiers and strap-on face masks and are now trying to breathe better with second-generation gadgets.

Li Lingling, who lives in the central Chinese city of Changsha, recently bought a snorkel-like device from Broad Group’s Lung-Pro line, an armband air filter that feeds purified air to a face mask via a breathing tube.

“The 3M MMM 0.37 % mask suffocates me if I wear it too long,” Ms. Li said about one of the more popular types of masks available in China. She liked the Mini Lung-Pro, which retails for 190 yuan ($29), so much that she bought five more for her friends, though she admitted the nose-to-arm apparatus does turn heads on the street.

China’s economic slowdown has meant slightly better air across much of the country in the past year. Still, a greater awareness of air quality among the general population has spurred Chinese companies—both startups and more traditional conglomerates—to bring new products to the market. The devices are aimed at reducing levels of PM2.5—fine particulate matter that penetrates deep into the lungs and is especially hazardous to human health.

In a survey from market research firm Mintel last year, of 3,000 Internet users aged 20 to 49, 83% of respondents said they already owned face masks. Of those surveyed, 61% said they were “very concerned” about PM2.5. And the number of air purifiers sold in China nearly quadrupled between 2010 and 2015 to 4.4 million units, according to market-data provider Euromonitor.

Now, “the concept and market for wearable devices has become quite popular,” says Neil Wang, managing director at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.


There is little independent research on how well the new antipollution offerings work. “[Consumers] focus most on if a product works, and are willing to pay a bit more if the product is really proven to be effective,” said Lindi Li, a Mintel research analyst.

Startup Beijing Zhongqing Technologies Co.’s CoClean looks like an amulet. Its manufacturer says the device’s technology is based on ionization, which reduces particles in the air, and data mining, which combines user information and locations to give CoClean users diagnostics on a larger scale.

The result is a 1 cubic meter breathing space with PM2.5 levels reduced by as much as 99%, according to Zhao Fei, an environmental scientist who worked with his fellow Tsinghua University alums and an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, to create the CoClean. It can be worn on a necklace or be pinned to a shirt collar.

“The best distance from your nose is 20 to 30 centimeters,” said 31-year-old Mr. Zhao, 31. He said Beijing Zhongqing Technologies has shipped more than 5,000 CoCleans since launching in October and has raised about 10 million yuan in two rounds of funding from Chinese venture capitalists.

The 799-yuan device comes with a charging station that doubles as a laser-based PM2.5 monitor. “I wouldn’t say this replaces a mask,” Mr. Zhao said. “Our goal is to be a supplementary system to giant devices.”

Mr. Wang of Frost & Sullivan said many traditional manufacturers are also jumping into the second-generation antipollution market.

Broad Group, which makes the wearable Lung-Pro, is a large air-conditioner manufacturer known as the provider of air purifiers in Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound that is home to China’s top leaders. It also offers a Lung-Pro that cleans the air inside a car.

But the new wave of devices aren’t just wearable or for cars. Ecovacs, a Hong Kong-based robotics firm, introduced the Atmobot A630, an air-purification robot, in October with a sticker price of 6,999 yuan. It works like the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and can be connected to a smartphone. The company says the Atmobot can purify a home in about half the time it takes for an ordinary air purifier to do the job. An Ecovacs spokeswoman said about 1,000 units have sold so far.

To be sure, with the average cost of an air purifier at more than $300, antipollution products are still a niche market. Analysts say upper-middle-class urbanites are the primary buyers

Antipollution innovation hasn’t been limited to just protection. Beijing residents Liam Bates and Jessica Lam, who are married, created the Origins Laser Egg—a portable air-quality measuring device—out of a desire to know how clean the air in their home was—not what a government reading station was saying miles away.

Mr. Bates said some pollution sensors on e-commerce sites that claim to measure PM2.5 simply measure dust or the transparency of air. The Origins egg uses a laser that together with a photo sensor determines the size and concentration of particles in the air. In a matter of seconds, it spits out an air-quality reading that can be calculated according to both official U.S. and Chinese standards, which vary on what levels of PM2.5 are considered healthy.

The 499-yuan product is sold in Apple Inc. AAPL -2.01 % outlets across China and in foreign grocery stores and lifestyle shops in Beijing. Mr. Bates, a former documentary filmmaker, said “tens of thousands” of laser eggs have sold so far.

Meanwhile, back in Changsha, Ms. Li wears her Lung-Pro practically every day on her electric bike rides to and from work. To make the contraption a bit more trendy, she recently replaced the white mask with a purple one and let a friend paint cartoon characters on it.

Alyssa Abkowitz at


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