Escaping the Apathy Trap: Q&A with Smart Air Filters
With air pollution in Chengdu reaching hazardous levels, it has become harder to look at the hazy skyline and ignore the resemblance to a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The absence of direct sunlight makes the knowledge that we are slowly poisoning ourselves by living here even more discouraging.
Confronted by a problem so large, it is easy to succumb to a certain nihilistic apathy. It numbs the panicked helpless feeling that comes from the realization that your pulmonary health is out of control. It also turns despair into style. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, it allows us to affect a fashionable disregard for our own mortality. Laughing at death is eternally hip. But beneath our willful denials of the problem lies a human instinct for self-preservation, confounded by our inability to act upon it.
Even many battle-hardened China hands, after extracting a particularly sooty booger, have investigated the possibility of purchasing an air purifier, confronted the price tag, and found themselves asking, “how much is my health worth to me?” It is a vexing dilemma – many people cannot afford purifiers, and those that can rarely understand what they are getting in return for the money they spend.
Beijing’s Inspiring Remedy
But intractable problems produce inspiring solutions, and the China pollution problem has spawned SmartAirFilters.com, a Beijing-based operation founded by American Fulbright scholar-turned-filter-evangelist Thomas Talhelm, that sells DIY air filters for the altruistically low price of 200 rmb (approximately USD $30). According to Talhelm’s home research, which he lays out in convincing detail on his Particle Counting blog, his DIY filter, comprised of nothing more than a HEPA filter strapped to a house fan, is as effective at reducing indoor PM 2.5 and PM .5 levels as expensive brand name filters like Blue Air and IQ Air.
Talhelm’s findings appear credible, not only because he makes his data open to the public – candidly describing the methodology and clearly graphing the results – but also because his experimentation seems motivated by scientific curiosity, rather than financial gain. The site invites readers to make their own DIY filters, and Smart Air’s Beijing team (of Anna Guo, Gus Tate, and Ted Patterson) host workshops teaching people how filters work and how to make their own.
Smart Air Methodology
The site steers away from dramatic claims, but the effect of the data it presents is to politely deconstruct the mythology of retail air purifiers. It exposes an unsettling truth: when we buy an air purifier, we are not just buying a piece of hardware, we are also buying a fantasy. And that fantasy can be quite expensive.
As someone who bought an expensive air purifier last year, I can attest to the susceptibility of consumers to their marketing magic. The air purifier I bought, a Cado AP-C100, is a sleek cylinder topped with a beveled rim and a honeycomb grating, underneath which glows a blue light. Its appearance is reassuringly high tech, but fundamentally it is a fan and a filter – the futuristic plastic shell and glossy brochure that came with it are just accouterments.
This month I bought a Smart Air Filter, and whenever I see it, chugging away like a scrappy underdog, it makes me smile. It feels good to improve the ecology of your home, and even better to do so by circumventing an expensive monopoly on access to clean air. But perhaps the most important lesson of the DIY filter movement is one of empowerment. It reminds us that regular people can address complex problems with a scientific approach, and that is an uplifting current.
Interview with the Smart Air Team
Smart Air’s Thomas Talhelm was nice enough to answer some questions from Chengdu Living. Our Q&A with him is below:
Chengdu Living: Your Particle Counting blog dates back 5 months or so. When did you first have the idea to strap a HEPA filter to a fan? Was it a ‘eureka’ moment, or an idea that fermented for a while?
Thomas Talhelm: I always wore masks when I biked outside, but I had never really worried about the air in my home until Beijing’s airpocalypse last year. My first worry was whether air purifiers could actually get the small particles from industrial air pollution. The problem is that a lot of the good objective Western tests focus on “first world” problems—allergies and pet dander, rather than industrial air pollution.
Then I saw the tests of Dr. Saint Cyr on his Myhealthbeijing blog. His tests with a particle counter convinced me that air purifiers can get rid of the really small particles. So I set out to buy the model he tested, and I found out it cost 16,000 RMB!
So I started to research how air filters work, and I found that HEPA filters get 99% of particles .3 microns and above (they get smaller particles too). I had heard of HEPA filters before. They’re not some proprietary, crazy expensive technology. If you have a vacuum cleaner at home, it probably has a HEPA in it.
I found a HEPA manufacturer, ordered a HEPA, and strapped it to a fan. Within a few weeks, the HEPA was black. But “it turned black” is not very scientific. It demonstrates that the filter is getting something, but I wanted to know if it was getting the really small particles, so I bought a particle counter and started doing tests.
CL: What is your opinion about the air filter industry at large? Is it predominately comprised of companies trying to trick people, or is it mostly well intentioned?
TT: First: all of the air purifiers I’ve tested work well, so they’re safe on that claim (but avoid ozone filters and UV light filters). That said, I think the profit margins are outrageous, and they’re preventing people from protecting their health, and I don’t like that.
But I actually don’t think it’s just greedy companies to blame. I think there’s a psychological explanation at play. Unless we buy a particle counter, we have no way of assessing whether air purifiers actually work. And when we can’t assess the value of a product even after we use it, we’re likely to rely on the price to judge the quality. “If it’s more expensive, it must be better.” We see this all the time with wine, which is another product that many of us feel like we lack the expertise to judge.
So my whole goal with Smart Air is to erase that knowledge gap. Instead of asking people to just trust me, I publish all of my data and methods. That way, people can see the data and judge for themselves. I think that if people see the data, they’ll get the knowledge to protect themselves against the really high prices.
CL: Your website presents information on a complicated subject very clearly. What are the guiding principles behind the way you document your research publicly?
I say quite clearly on the website that I’m not an expert in air pollution. People like Vance Wagner and Louie Cheng know a lot more than I do, and they’ve been gracious in teaching me. But my philosophy is to post my data and methods openly so that everyone can see how I reach my conclusions and judge for themselves. I also have to credit my collaborator Gus Tate with the sleek design of the website, which makes my nerdery more accessible.
CL: Your project is refreshingly egalitarian. Do you think about air quality as a class issue?
I’ve never considered myself strongly moral. I’m not religious. But I hate it when people rip other people off. If I can help stop some of that I’d be happy.
And now when I see pregnant women on the street not wearing masks, I feel the urge to give them a mask and send them an air purifier. A study in Chongqing showed that pregnant women exposed to coal-fired power plant pollution gave birth to babies with smaller heads and slower cognitive development. It shouldn’t cost 16,000 RMB to give birth to a child without cognitive delays.
CL: With your low selling prices, your margin must not be very wide. Your site alludes to the fact that the operation is not a cash cow. How do you find the time and energy to keep it running?
Right on. It’s been a few months, and I still have yet to put a dime in my pocket. In fact, I’m several thousand dollars in the whole to cover the cost of all those filters. I’m still a PhD student, so I rely a lot on my collaborators Gus Tate and Anna Guo. We also hired our first full-time employee, and we’ve gotten lots of help from Ted Patterson, who’s been volunteering for us.
CL: What are your ambitions for expanding? Have you considered teaming up with NGOs or philanthropic outlets?
CL: I have heard there are other Chinese sites that have been emulating your approach. Does that bug you at all, or are you happy to see it spreading virally?
I have seen Chinese websites that have translated the DIY guide and linked to Particle Counting, and I’m happy to see that. I’ve been slow to get the word out in the Chinese language—not because I don’t want to, but because it’s quicker for me to write in English!
And if other people are copying the idea, I think that’s fine. I don’t need to make money off of this. If that were my main goal, I wouldn’t have put the instructions about how to do it on the site.
CL: The idea that an expensive retail filter and a homemade filter provide roughly equivalent performance could have potentially serious commercial ramifications. Has anyone from the air filter industry approached you, challenged you, or tried to buy your silence?
No, my guess is that they think it’s better to not honor us by giving us attention, and I think that’s correct. A Blue Air employee was pretty hostile in a post on Zhihu (a Chinese Quora site), but I think that was his own prerogative. On a lighter note, now that I write so much about filters, my internet browser is convinced I want to buy an IQ Air. I get IQ Air ads all the time.
CL: I understand that you came to China on your Fulbright scholarship. Are you intending to return to the University of Virginia to finish your PhD in the near future, or might this project keep you in China longer?
Yup! I’m at UVa right now, and I’m finishing up my comprehensive exams. I love research and psychology, so that’s still my career plan.
CL: It looks like your project has been gathering steam. If you were to analyze its growth with your data-infused approach, what metric or data point would be the most telling?
My favorite datapoint is the first week we put the site online. Gus and I had worked a lot on the site for weeks, so I was really excited to click publish, see the site go live, and watch the orders roll in. I had to fight the temptation to ask Gus everyday, “How many orders do we have?” At the end of the first week, we had sold…three.
But of course these things take time. By December, we were so overwhelmed with orders, we had to hire our first full-time shipping manager. And that was just in time for Shanghai’s airpocalypse. In three days, we saw our orders double, double again, and double again. It completely overwhelmed us (and according to a newspaper article I saw, it overwhelmed Blue Air too).
CL: If people want to help out, what can they do?
I have to say, it’s been a lot of work to put this all together, and I’m still a poor PhD student, but it makes me really happy when people offer to help. Just the other day, a woman emailed me and said, “I’m a stay-at-home mom, so if you need any help with marketing, just let me know.” How awesome is that!?
Right now, I think we have two big needs. First, I want to organize workshops in cities besides Beijing and Shanghai, but I need help from people in those cities to find a good location and to get the word out. We have to order all the filters and fans in advance, so we need to make sure enough people will show up! I’d also love to work with Chinese organizations to do more Chinese-language workshops.
Second, I’d love to get the ear of anyone who has experience with law or business/manufacturing consulting. We could use the expertise, but we don’t have a McKinsey-size budget (nor do I want to bake their fees into the price of our filters).
Are you tired of sooty boogers? Do you need a Smart Air Filter? Would you attend a workshop in Chengdu? Let us know in the comments below.