(The Guardian) Fresh air for sale
It started as a joke, but now people spend a fortune on bottled fresh air. Alex Moshakis reveals how global pollution is fuelling this fad
One day in early 2015, Moses Lam and Troy Paquette filled a Ziploc bag with fresh air and posted it to eBay. The bag sold at the asking price – 99 Canadian cents, about 60p – and what was at first a joke between friends suddenly became less fanciful. The pair filled another bag and posted that online, too. When the media took note, a bidding war began, and the item ended, as hot tickets on eBay normally do, with an improbable surge. It sold for C$168 (£99).
Lam had been toiling on commission as a mortgage specialist. He had met Paquette at work. Both were fed up with the monotony of their jobs, and they saw in their eBay success the opportunity to create a new kind of market – fresh air! – one they might control themselves. Carefully, they developed a product robust enough to survive divergent postal systems: an aluminium canister connected to a plastic mouthpiece through which customers could inhale air siphoned from remote locations in Banff, Alberta, where the pair live. Next they conducted cursory research on air pollution, and soon they identified a primary market: Los Angeles, a city at once health-conscious, plagued by cars, and susceptible to wild fires, which fill the atmosphere with toxins. “We said: ‘Let’s model this after bottled water’,” Lam told me. They named their company Vitality Air.
In these early stages, neither Lam not Paquette mentioned the project to friends – “We didn’t want to get laughed at,” Lam said. Lam did tell his parents not long after the sale of the second bag. They responded by saying: “Don’t quit your day jobs.” But the pair ploughed on regardless. In June 2015 Vitality Air sold its first canister. A few months later the company received an order for 5,000 cans, which were shipped exclusively to cities in China. As media attention grew, so did orders. Lam began to field calls from customers in Beijing and New Delhi. Later he spoke to people in Vietnam, Korea, Iran, Greece and Mexico. A new strategy emerged: to target the inhabitants of the world’s most polluted cities, some of whom were unable to walk 200m without inhaling damaging levels of pollutants. “We kind of forgot about LA,” Lam said. “I don’t know what the population of Los Angeles is, but it’s not 2.8 billion.”
Before long, Lam and Paquette had developed a small industry and others began to cotton on to the opportunity. Start-ups in Switzerland and Australia launched similar products: canisters filled with compressed air collected from areas of outstanding natural beauty. Normally the sites were rural and marketable, locations already associated with purity, or adventure holidays: Banff, Lake Louise, Lucerne, Sydney’s Blue Mountains. There is now luxury air, cold-pressed air, 100% mountain air. There is air canned for the benefit of mothers (“Keep awake and command the household in a natural way.”) There is air for work. Air for kids. Air for grandparents.
Given the actual product, most items are expensive – an 8-litre Vitality Air canister costs C$32 (£19); on average, we each breathe 6 litres a minute – but some are more expensive than others. Leo De Watts, an Englishman who coined the term “air farming” – a strategic coup at the dawn of a new industry – began to fill clip-top jars with air from hillsides in Dorset, roping his family into an outlandish collection process that involved very tall nets. In reference to Greek mythology, he named his company Aethaer. A 580ml jar sets customers back £80.
When I spoke to Lam last November in Edmonton, I asked him to describe in simple terms what his company did. “We’re literally taking clean, pristine air and moving it from one part of the world to another,” he said. He was chipper and earnest. He seemed a nice guy, not the sort to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. But it is easy to be sceptical of his intent, not least in relation to the efficacy of his product. His company has faced a number of questions, chief among them: isn’t this all poppycock?
Prior to 2014, there is very little on record to suggest that anyone had made a large-scale attempt to transport vast quantities of clean air from one location to another. But the idea had been explored in film. In the 1987 sci-fi spoof Spaceballs, Mel Brooks tells the story of an evil race scheming to steal the fresh air of a neighbouring planet, having squandered its own supply. In one scene, an entire atmosphere is hoovered up by a colossal spaceship that resembles in form a maid using a vacuum cleaner. In another, a character inhales fresh air from a can. The product is branded Perri-Air.
Brook’s premise is hilarious for its absurdity. But he made Spaceballs 30 years ago, when air pollution posed less of a threat. Today it is “the world’s largest single environmental health risk”, according to the World Health Organisation – a modifiable burden that costs 6.5 million premature deaths a year, one in nine of the global total. For the most part that trend is increasing, particularly in emerging economies – India, for example – where rapid industrial growth has come at the expense of the environment. The causes of air pollution are simple and, with legislative support, correctable: inefficient transport, coal-burning power plants, industrial incineration, industrial production and household energy use. In many parts of the world, the air people inhale is quietly killing them, and often there is no escape. “The problem is that when you’re a citizen, you can’t choose the air you’re breathing,” said Dr Maria Neira, a director at the WHO’s department of public health. “You breathe whatever is available.”
In countless urban centres, particularly those in Asia, whatever is available regularly exceeds the WHO limit, sometimes tenfold. But it can become worse still. In November, a recording in New Delhi monitored the air pollution level at almost 40 times the recommended maximum, prompting locals to refer to the city as “a gas chamber”. For days, commuters wore scarves over masks. Schools closed, and a dense smog veiled the city in gloomy darkness. Not for the first time, locals had to consider very seriously the necessity of going outside.
On a cold Wednesday morning in December, Moritz Krähenmann drove to the Flüela Pass, a mountain road close to Davos, in the Swiss Alps, and pulled 4,000 litres of fresh air through a small compressor. Krähenmann is 25 years old. He lives close to Zurich, in Winterthur, where he runs a small office and a lab in which he stores the equipment necessary to perform rudimentary tests on air quality. Last year he established a business that sells 8-litre canisters of Swiss air at €19.90 (£17.60) a pop. The company is called Swissbreeze, despite similarly named competitors. They include Pure Swiss Air and Swiss Alpine Air. To Krähenmann’s credit, neither brand has quite the same lyricism as his own. On the front of each of Krähenmann’s cans, he has included a series of positive lifestyle slogans. One reads: “100% Swiss air / 100% power to live.” It sits just below a version of the Swiss flag.
Like the majority of his competitors, Krähenmann is a rookie in the air industry. Swissbreeze was officially founded last May. And, much like his rivals, he uses compressors to collect large amounts of air from remote locations before shipping it halfway round the world. He relies on publicly available government data to ensure the air he collects is as pristine as possible. On some days that means travelling to Davos. On others it requires a trip to Lucerne, or Interlaken, or St Moritz. He will often collect 70,000 litres at a time, two or three times a month, depending on demand. The air is filtered and purified on site. Later it is siphoned into canisters.
Unlike Lam – who is prone to describing the collection process as a dangerous quest: “If we ever run out of fuel we’re dead in the water” – Krähenmann is practical and straight talking. But the pair are similar in other ways. The objects they sell are near-identical. They work with partners in China, India, and South Korea. And they have no prior credentials in – or, it seems, any great vocational passion for – public health. While Vitality Air’s founders cut their teeth in the Canadian real estate industry, Krähenmann, whose parents are doctors, worked towards a degree in general management. The passion they share is for business – entrepreneurship, particularly. During a phone call, Krähenmann told me that Swissbreeze is the first in a portfolio of products he plans to launch, all of which centre on exporting some part of the Swiss experience. Lam has already extended Vitality Air’s offer, notably with canned oxygen, which has proven medical benefits. He is marketing the product to professional athletes.
I asked Lam to share his personal ambitions. “I’m the kind of guy who goes after titles,” he said. “I want to be known as the king of air. I want to be known as the first person in the world to sell people air.” He did not mention a desire to contribute to the end of air pollution or to help humanity. Krähenmann remained more humble but he, too, could not disguise his ultimate objective: to trade globally, to sell Switzerland to the world.
None of which is out of the ordinary; people attempt to become rich in many different ways. What makes everything ethically murky is this: few people know whether inhaling air from a can is in any way beneficial to the health of a consumer. When I asked Lam and Krähenmann if they had commissioned studies on the health benefits of their products, they both told me they had not. Neither has anyone else in the industry, and no independent studies appear to exist. (The same can be said, right now, of industry regulations.) “There are reports about the benefit of clean air over highly polluted air,” John Dickinson, director of Green & Clean, an Australian air company, told me. But “the reality is there are no current medical science reports about the benefits of small amounts of clean air.” Nobody has actually sat down and performed rigorous tests to answer the question: does canned air actually work?
I asked Dr Sarah Elkin, a respiratory consultant at Imperial College London, for her opinion on whether canned air offered health advantages to those in regions affected by high levels of air pollution. Her response was succinct: “To my knowledge there is no evidence of benefit.” (Later in the same email she suggested I search for existing studies. Perhaps the remark was pointed.) Other specialists share Elkin’s stance – Shawn Aaron, the director of the Canadian Respiratory Research Network, once told a reporter that: “We don’t know that these bottles of pollution-free air have any health effects, beyond placebo effects.” But, for the lack of data, few can confirm the position as indisputable.
Dr Neir, the WHO director of public health, dismissed bottles of canned air as “sophisticated ad-hoc products,” before complaining that they encourage users to ignore the larger issue. It is “like accepting what should be unacceptable”, she said. “When you are in a city where the air is totally polluted, and you try to solve it by breathing with your own device, it’s like you are accepting that breathing polluted air is something normal. And it shouldn’t be.” Neir’s colleague, Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at the WHO, has said: “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last,” which would appear to discount all temporary measures as ineffectual.
On the phone, I asked Lam about the health benefits of his product. His language became evasive. “We don’t want to make any health claims,” he said. Next he suggested I turn to Google for clarity on the advantages of breathing fresh air, before remarking: “If you breathe better air, it’s better for blood circulation, you live healthier, you live longer, you live happier.” Later he added that, after a breath of fresh air: “You feel more awake” and “colours seem brighter”. This terminology is similar to the language used on the Vitality Air website, which, on the subject of direct benefits, is curiously ambiguous. “Your body will give you all the strength you need if you feed it the right ingredients,” one paragraph reads. “Quality air is one ingredient you shouldn’t overlook.”
Near to the end of our conversation, Lam described his product as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”. He was pursuing a narrative that celebrated clean air as a luxury pursuit – a birthright as a unique treat.
I asked him how much he recommended people use one of his canisters. “Maybe 10 breaths a day,” he said, appearing to overlook the contradiction.
In conversation with other directors, I had heard both similar and widely different suggestions. Krähnemann advises consumers to inhale 30 to 50 breaths for every hour they spend outside. (This will “relax and calm the lungs”, he told me.) Dickinson did not give a figure, but did refer to his product as “a supplement”.
I asked Lam to explain the benefit of a single breath of clean air. “It’s a unique experience,” he said. Our conversation was becoming fraught, now. “It’s a shot of something your body is not accustomed to.”