Airpocalypse. Fmog. “Sandstorm.” These words are familiar to Beijingers new and old. We own face masks that make us look like Hannibal Lecter and Instagram our feelings on days when the air looks particularly crunchy.
Every other article from pernicious foreign media bureaus is full of scary facts about the lowered life expectancy, higher instances of respiratory disease and decreased fetal head circumference associated with living in such a polluted environment. And yet, the siren song of Beijing endures and so the question becomes, what can we do to increase our personal air quality, if not urban air quality?
Step 1 - Take one fan
Enter Thomas Talhelm, the founder of Smart Air filters. When on a Fulbright fellowship in Beijing, Talhelm experienced a rude awakening during the Great Airpocalypse of January 2013. With the U.S. Embassy Air Quality Index (AQI) consistently broadcasting readings of 500-plus, Talhelm began researching purchasing an indoor air filter.
“[My research] convinced me that purifiers can dramatically reduce particulate pollution in the home. So I decided to buy a purifier, but I was blown away by the fact that I would have to spend US$1,000 per machine—and probably buy at least two for my home. I only had six months left on my Fulbright, so spending US$2,000 for six months of use seemed crazy to me.”After this second rude awakening, Talhelm’s insatiable curiosity led him to begin researching exactly how air filters work in removing small particulate matter from the air. What he found out was nothing short of revelatory.
Step 2 - Add one HEPA filter
“I discovered that the main tool in purifiers is a HEPA filter. The standard for HEPA filters is to catch over 99 percent of particles .3 microns [in diameter] and above. HEPAs aren’t some expensive industry secret—you can get them in lots of places. Your vacuum probably has one! So I found a HEPA manufacturer, and I built one myself.”
After one week, Talhelm’s DIY filter, consisting of a HEPA filter strapped onto a simple box fan, had already begun to turn black. But Talhelm, who is a PhD. student in cultural psychology, wasn’t satisfied without statistical evidence. So he bought a particle counter and began measuring the levels of particulate matter in his bedroom with the air filter turned on.
Step 3 - Tie it together
The data didn’t lie—the homemade filter had a very real impact on the levels of indoor pollution. Talhelm began publishing his findings on his blog, which soon snowballed into offline workshops where Talhelm and his partners Anna Guo and Gus Tate began showing other expats exactly how cheap and simple it was to build an air filter and begin protecting their health.
Clean air on a budget!
Talhelm and Smart Air’s ultimate goal is to educate and reach more of the local Chinese population—right now, their workshops are conducted in English and payment is only accepted via PayPal, but they have just opened up a Taobao storefront. He’s not concerned about making money off of this idea or data, either. “I’ll be happy if I can help end the ridiculous profits the filter companies are making off of people that just want to protect their health. I thought that was more important than making money off the ‘secret’ I had discovered.”
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