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A couple wearing protective masks poses for a self portrait in thick haze on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Extremely high pollution levels shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
A couple wearing protective masks poses for a self portrait in thick haze on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Extremely high pollution levels shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Economy Lab

China’s hottest commodity: Pollution-fighting face masks Add to ...

Zhao Danqing is a businessman in the unusual position of wanting his product to become obsolete, quickly.

With hazardous levels of pollution again blanketing Beijing and authorities urging city residents to stay indoors, even the most stoic old Beijingers are finally acknowledging the problem and stocking up on protective face masks. Major corporations including Apple, JPMorgan and the BBC are also handing them out to their employees.

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As a result, manufacturers like Mr. Zhao are seeing their stock fly out of warehouses and off store shelves at record pace. One million of his Green Shield masks have sold in the last three months; of those, 700,000 have sold in the last four weeks.

“People feel it themselves now, people who live in big cities can feel the pollution. The information spreads quickly these days, and there has been a lot of media attention,” said Mr. Zhao, chairman of Sinotextiles Corp, in a telephone interview from his base in Shanghai.

“We’re in a rather conflicted … state of mind in producing these products. We’d hope this mask could disappear from the market soon. However, the reality is that treating air pollution will take time, so we think sales will continue to increase for at least five to 10 years.”

Manufacturers and sales agents for imported air purifiers, face masks and water filtration equipment are doing non-stop business. Amazon.cn’s supply of 3M N95 masks – filtering 95 per cent of particulate and usually used by sanders, or people working with hazardous materials – has been sold out for weeks.

The counterfeiters are also doing great business, with stocks of dodgy-looking masks for sale on Taobao, the popular Chinese version of Ebay, and plain cotton masks on convenience store shelves making unbelievable claims of effectiveness.

The soup is a combination of coal-fired heating plants and factories in this unusually cold winter, and Beijing’s own ever-growing number of cars; those pollutants are trapped by air inversions over Beijing, which sits in a ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills and mountains.

State media, no longer trying to cover up the problem as in days gone by, reported 1.3 million square kilometres, most of northern and eastern China, have been smothered in smog this week. Beijing, Tianjin and parts of Hebei and Shandong province were all recorded as severely polluted on the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s scale.

The air pollution, which has included the worst-ever readings on a U.S. embassy monitor since it began before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is expected to ease with strong north winds forecast for Friday.

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