The Fight Against Air Pollution Gets Personal With Sleek New Masks

The Atmos anti-pollution air mask will go on sale this summer.

(Courtesy AO Air)


Go outside, close your eyes, and inhale. Do your lungs fill with fresh air – or are you taking a big deep breath of nasty fumes?

A new crop of tech startups is emerging to meet a growing demand for individualized clean air.

It depends, of course, on where you live – and for many people, the situation is worsening. According to a recent analysis by two Carnegie Mellon economists, particulate air matter pollution rose 5.5 percent in the U.S. between 2016 and 2018, resulting in almost 10,000 premature deaths.

Despite the urgency of the problem, there seems to be no indication that civic leadership will be protecting our air any time soon. The United States left the Paris Agreement recently, Brazil is still letting the Amazon burn and Australia lacks a national strategy for tackling air pollution, despite its recent catastrophic bushfires. China's deceptive coronavirus communication only underscores the point that safeguarding the public's health can take a backseat to politics and power.

But people still need to breathe, and now a new crop of tech startups is emerging to meet a growing demand for individualized clean air. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, I saw futuristic masks, smart goggles and self-contained apparatuses promising to filter the bad air away.

Obviously, a dollar store surgical mask wasn't going to cut it anymore.

"We have seen a huge amount of interest and a growing awareness of the issues with masks and respirators," says AO Air co-founder Dan Bowden. "The more regularly someone wears a mask or a respirator, the deeper our Atmos solution resonates with them. Leading markets have been Korea, China and, unexpectedly, Thailand."

Lined up for a Summer 2020 launch, the AO Air filter fits across your mouth from ear to ear – kind of like Geordi LaForge's Star Trek: The Next Generation eye sensors, but across your jaw line. The translucent mask continually pumps cool air for about 5 hours per charge and will cost $350 USD.

"Soon, we'll have private schools selling themselves on the air quality of the building."

"There is a movement towards individuals taking control over their own health, but also we see a great movement towards individuals taking control over the impacts that they have on the wider world," Bowden says. "We believe that the deeper systemic change has always come from humans working together and not being reliant upon high powers."

Bowden says the company wants to help the individual citizen, clean up the public building air ("factories, hospitals, workplaces") and, most interestingly, collect pollution metrics data via the masks. "We are looking forward to hearing how this information can be used in creative ways," Bowden adds. It is yet unclear how the data will be shared and how proprietary the information will be for AO Air and its competitors.

Scientific artist Michael Pinsky is taking a more experiential approach to raise awareness of the problem. In 2017, he launched traveling pollution pods, these giant, interconnected rooms recreating the air quality of several cities from London to Los Angeles. His exhibit has been on near constant tour, hitting the New York Climate Action Summit, the recent COP25 in Madrid, and other major events.

When I visited, I could handle being in the New Delhi air quality pod for only about 20 seconds. It made my eyes water and burn.

"Now you have new, 8 – 10 million British pound houses being built with premium air systems," Pinsky says. "Soon, we'll have private schools selling themselves on the air quality of the building." I mention my own children, whose schools we selected based on ratings and rankings. I could easily see "indoor air quality" being another metric. Perhaps another lever of privilege.

Pinsky gives a wily chuckle.

"The legislators have to get on top of it – or air will be privatized like space or our schools," he says.

"Clean air is a right," he adds. "Everyone should have it."

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

This Jarvik-7 artificial heart was used in the first bridge operation in 1985 meant to replace a failing heart while the patient waited for a donor organ.

National Museum of American History

In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.

Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.

"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.