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The depressingly big business of pollution masks

One air filter mask company says that it has received 10 times its normal orders from the Bay Area in the last week.

The depressingly big business of pollution masks
[Photo: Vogmask]

The Camp fire in Northern California is already the deadliest fire in California history, with 42 dead and 200 missing, and it’s only 30% contained. The fire’s smoke, combined with the Woolsey fire in southern California, has caused dangerous air conditions across much of the state.

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The air is particularly bad in the Bay Area, which has led to increased demand for N95 particulate respirator masks, which local officials recommend for protection from wildfire smoke because they filter out at least 95% of very small particles. Some local San Francisco CVS Pharmacies have been sold out of single-use, throwaway pollution masks since last Thursday, with a new shipment coming in this morning. Some hardware stores are still stocked. Vogmask, which typically sells masks online for allergies, asthma, travel, and urban commuting, says its order volume in the Bay Area is 10 times greater than normal.

[Photo: O2Today/Marcel Wanders (design)]

Salt Lake City-based startup 02Today, which makes dual-layer masks for about $30 each, has already sold out of its supply. The company is currently taking pre-orders for its new mask, which was designed to function in both cool and warm environments–including areas near wildfires–but these won’t be available until December.

“Basically the last week has wiped out our version-one mask stock but we plan to be ready for the next major fire event, which as we now know is going to be part of our new reality here in parts of the United States,” says 02Today CEO Bruce Lorange.

The new reality is climate change. A report from the state of California released in May linked last year’s record-breaking fires with climate change, and Los Angeles fire chief Daryl Osby has said that climate change is the reason why this year’s fires are so much worse than in the past–partly because of drought and an extended fire season, which used to be only a few months but now is year-round. As , distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says, “global warming exacerbates the conditions and raises the risk of wildfire.”

[Photo: Airinum]

Some high-end pollution mask and air purification startups have been giving discounts and free shipping for people living in California. Swedish company Airinum is offering free express shipping on its Urban Air Masks, which cost $79. Molekule, a San Francisco-based company that makes air purifiers for the home, is offering $100 off its $799 purifier for Californians with a code, as well as same-day shipping and pickup options.

3M, which mass-manufactures disposable N95 masks, says that it is challenging to estimate demand in the midst of a crisis. But the company stocks the American Red Cross with masks and has donated 500,000 of them in 2018 so far. Just this week, 3M donated another 22,000 respirators to disaster relief organizers in California.

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Pollution mask companies like Airinum, 02Today, and U.K.-based Cambridge Mask Company have been scaling up their operations in the United States and Europe over the past two years in response to worsening air pollution in urban areas–92% of cities fail to meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for air quality. Today, most demand for such products still comes from Asia, where large cities like New Delhi and Beijing have consistent air-quality problems. But with the increased frequency and severity of wildfires in the western United States, pollution masks may become a staple in every household. TechSci Research estimates that the global market for air purification devices will reach $29 billion by 2021.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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