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Hongkongers could benefit from new air pollution mask that’s six times more effective than rivals

When Alexander Hjertstrom moved from his native Sweden to the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in the autumn of 2014, he suffered the return of an old fiend: asthma. The intense air pollution in the city had caused his long-gone respiratory condition to return.

Hjertstrom, then a master’s student on a six-month exchange at the Indian Institute of Management, found that wearing an anti-pollution breathing mask was the most effective way to protect himself. However, he found most masks on the market were primitive and far from perfect in design and construction. They were certainly not appealing to wear every day.

Upon his return to Sweden after finishing a research project on air pollution while in India, Hjertstrom discussed the problem with three friends. Living in Sweden, the clean Scandinavian air was something all four had taken for granted.

“Given how acute the problem of air pollution was and the poor product offerings we could find, we decided to do something about it,” says Fredrik Kempe, a childhood friend of Hjertstrom.

They came up with the Airinum Urban Breathing Mask, which its founders term a “next generation anti-pollution mask”. In tests it has been shown to protect wearers up to six times better than other widely available masks.

After months of development, a very successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and large number of pre-orders, the company opened their online shop for worldwide sales on December 1.

“Compared to all other civilian masks that we’ve found, purchased and tested, our mask really works,” says Kempe, Airinum’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, who has a master’s degree in innovation management.

“Many masks out there today either lack proper filter technology, or they have a poor fit, resulting in leakage and poor filtration. Our mask uses high-quality filters tested here in Sweden in collaboration with Camfil, a global leader in the air filter industry. The construction of the mask has been developed, tested and iterated over the past year to achieve the perfect fit.”

Anti-pollution masks are big business, particularly in smoggy China, where face masks even feature on fashion show catwalks. Sales of masks in China reached 1.7 billion units in 2014, a 20 per cent increase year on year, according to Chinese market research firm Daxue Consulting.

Airinum looks similar to other high-end masks on the market, such as Vogmask, currently the leading face mask in China, and Cambridge Mask. But Kempe says Airinum’s Urban Breathing Mask is “completely different”. For one thing it has a unique changeable filter system, while Vogmask’s filter is permanently sewn into the mask and does not have reusable exhalation valves. So once Vogmask’s filter reaches the end of its useful life (hundreds of hours), or starts to leak, a new mask has to be bought.

Airinum’s mask has proprietary changeable filters that use a three-layer, hi-tech filter technology which protects against up to 99 per cent of viruses, bacteria, allergens and smog. External tests have shown the mask to have better filtration efficiency than the N95 filter mask requirements set forth by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. For easy breathing, the mask has two custom-made exhalation valves – essential to let warm, moist air out of the mask.

For the perfect fit, the mask uses stretchable material that fits the contours of the wearer’s face. Adjustable ear loops and an elastic binding surrounding the mask ensure a tight seal around the face. The mask comes in five sizes to suit both children and adults.

For some aesthetic flair, the founders sought the expertise of renowned Scandinavian creative minds – Mattias Wiklund, the menswear pattern maker at Swedish fast fashion chain HM, and Kemal Alidzikovic, who works with Swedish fashion/function brands such as Acne and Haglofs.

The Kickstarter campaign, which ran for five weeks in November and December 2015, gathered up 70,743 (HK$581,522) from 1,386 backers in more than 30 markets, including Hong Kong. Airinum also received funding from the Swedish government, business angels and an accelerator programme in Stockholm.

The Urban Breathing Mask costs US$75 and the price includes the mask and two filters, which last up to 200 hours. The company plans to offer a long-term subscription service for filters.