A Canadian company called Vitality is cashing in on the unbearable smog levels in China with a new invention — canned air. They now sell metal canisters of compressed air, each of which connects to a hose attached to a face mask. A valve releases a stream of air into the hose and up to the mask, and users are treated to a refreshing whiff of fresh air, for however brief a time.
In decades past, the city of Los Angeles faced similar air-quality challenges, and was known for its air pollution as much as its movie stars. The problem was that the mountains surrounding the metropolitan area form a basin that traps the exhaust from cars and other sources; so the smog lingered, leaving a visible blanket of dirt floating above the landscape on most days.
Over in China at the time, people got around on bicycles, and air pollution was not an issue. The cities were full of activity, but China was not considered to be “developed.”
Flash forward to 2015. There are at least twice as many cars in the LA area as there were in 1970. But strict emission standards have created a huge improvement, and smog is no longer synonymous with the name of the city. Because of its special geography, the air in LA remains the dirtiest in the U.S., but it is much less of a health problem than before.
In China, modernization happened but it was not, unfortunately, very “green.” The capital city, Beijing, now has 5 million motor vehicles, and bicycling to work is actually pretty dangerous. The city’s pollution problem is, perhaps, the most extreme in history.
Indeed, the problem has gotten so bad that imported air might not be the most outlandish element of the new lifestyle in Beijing. Face masks, for example, have become so commonplace that designer masks are now selling and even compete against each other in fashion shows. And the government actually mounted a bright LED light high on a billboard as an artificial sun because the real sun hadn’t been seen in some time.
Like LA, Beijing’s problem is affected by nearby mountains, but the city has not gotten a handle on emissions. Things changed temporarily, in 2008, when the summer Olympics were held in the city. Many factories shut down, construction was halted, and cars could only be used every other day. But although the city had a chance to experience the benefits of reduced pollution, whatever restrictions are in place seven years later are not working – the city’s air is worse. Beijing somehow won the competition to host the 2022 Winter Olympic games, and officials are hoping that will provide the political and economic forces what they need to make stronger and more permanent emission restrictions.