Coping with pollution in China's cities

As pollution worsens in China’s cities, we look at the growing market for air purifiers and the array of choices consumers face in the pursuit of safer, cleaner air.

By Aaron Posehn

If you currently live in China, and especially in one of its larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai, you are surely well-acquainted with the recent wave of pollution that eerily envelopes the tallest of buildings, often making it difficult to see even a kilometer in the distance. Although I can remember looking out over the Bund from atop the Oriental Pearl Tower in 2007 and seeing the city slowly disappear in front of me, the recent photos coming out of China are even more alarming.

Recent smog readings on the air quality index in Shanghai have gone as high as 450+, with some lower readings in the high 100s, though a “warning to stay indoors is triggered any time the index exceeds 200.” 300 is considered “serious China skyscraper smog
pollution.” This has led many school children to be kept at home and has at least one eldery citizen carrying a 15 kilogram air purifier around with her wherever she goes. Indeed, from face masks to air filters to just staying indoors, everyone is trying to at least lessen their exposure to the air around them.

A surge in air purifier products and sales

As one can imagine, this has also caused a recent surge in the number and variety of air purification systems being sold. Searches for air purifiers on Taobao, China’s largest online commerce site, have increased 513% for the week ending Dec. 10 compared to the preceding seven days, with a 1431.20% increase when compared to the same time period in the previous year. Actual sales of air purifiers increased 267.50% over the same seven-day period, with a 1264.40% increase over the same period the year before.

This has led to good business for some of the biggest and most popular brands like Philips, Panasonic, Sharp, and Daikin, with foreign brands like these possessing 80% of the market. The average price per unit is around 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (US$330 to $495), with some even retailing for as high as 50,000 yuan (US$8,235).

However, there is the further problem of regulation. As the overall sales volume of air purifiers is still low compared to other common household appliances, there are fewer standards governing the quality and effectiveness of these units, with some companies even “failing to specify or exaggerating the maximum interior area that their products can purify.” And because there are limited standards, it can be confusing to know exactly what you are buying. For example, does a 200 yuan HEPA filter clean the air better than a 40,000 yuan air purifier? Both may claim to remove a similar amount of pollutants from the air, but the price points are drastically different.

Growing array of options means new business opportunities

However, this has not dissuaded Austin, Texas start-up Oransi from working to get a piece of the action. Peter Mann, the company’s CEO, is aiming to sell to businesses and individuals in China who will pay upwards of US$2000 for a single unit made with high-quality components, noting that this price point makes his product not intended for the masses. Still, he has already sold his first 500 units and is close to selling 1000 more to his distributors in China.

Mann is well aware of the vagueness in standards for items like air purifiers andShanghai Bund smog says that he is careful with exactly what he claims his machines can do, though he is adding small U.S. flags on his products to indicate that they are strictly made in the USA in the hopes of setting them apart from the competition. And although the Federal Trade Commission does enforce penalties for false or incorrect air purifier advertising, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate air purifiers at this time because “they aren’t considered medical devices.

Regardless of what they might promise to do, air purifiers of all kinds are being sold like never before in China, and while the pollution continues to be hazardous to many, it is also true that it has meant good business for others. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but it may be a good time for businesses to further expand in this part of the market and it will likely be those companies who can guarantee certain firm standards that will come out on top with the most units sold in the future.


Aaron Posehn graduated of the University of British Columbia majoring in Asian Area Studies and specializing in China, Taiwan, and India. A frequent blogger on China-related topics, he is also the author of “chinEASE,” an eBook that teaches beginners how to easily learn Chinese characters.