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Harrison Wang is bringing Banff air to China, with 7.7 litres packed into a can that can provide about 150 breaths.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Harrison Wang may be the only person in China disappointed when the smog lifts.

But on a rainy day in Beijing, he has hope. The forecast suggests the country's dark veil of thick air will be back soon. "It's supposed to be superbad tomorrow, and for three or four days," the 33-year-old Edmonton-based entrepreneur says. "It's what we need."

In the upside-down world of a man looking to sell China clean air, what's good for business isn't necessarily what's good for the lungs. After all, if China wasn't so sullied by milky skies, there wouldn't be a market for the bottle of Vitality Air sitting before him. Jammed inside is 7.7 litres of air from Mount Norquay in Banff National Park. Suggested uses: hangovers, athletic training and exam prep.

Press the actuator at the top and air comes rushing out. "Suck in deep," encourages Mr. Wang, China distributor for the product. "Can you feel it? Close your eyes and just envision the Rocky Mountains."

His father, Wang Ke, sits beside him. The elder Mr. Wang built a multimillion-dollar business importing Chinese-made pipeline and machinery parts and exporting Canadian lumber and pulp. Selling air is far different, but he considers China's environmentals woes "our next focus."

Those problems won't be fixed without a massive and sustained outpouring of cash, meaning China's fouled air, water and soil is creating new openings for those with solutions to peddle.

Smog, the best known of China's problems, is cutting an estimated five-and-a-half years from the lifespan of those breathing it. But other leftovers of China's decades-long development spree are equally serious. Nearly 20 per cent of Chinese farmland is dangerously polluted and 70 per cent of groundwater in the country's north is unfit for humans.

In July, in one of the first major financial reports of its kind, Goldman Sachs estimated it will cost China $1.6-trillion between 2016 and 2020 to clean up pollution. Ma Jun, chief economist at the research bureau of the People's Bank of China, said recently he expects China to invest at least $410-billion a year to build up the green sector.

China has a history of retrenching from plans to go green, but "things are now sort of changing and the environmental focus is going to get stronger and bigger," said Ellen Carberry, the Beijing-based managing director of the climate change and air quality program at the Paulson Institute.

She pointed to plans for air management in Beijing and surrounding areas, and more assertive enforcement in the region – although it's not clear how much China will allow foreign companies to participate.

Some firms, however, have already made inroads – from giants such as IBM to smaller players such as Toronto-based AUG Signals, a defence contractor that began to focus on China in 2010 – "because China has the largest need for clean water," president George Lampropoulos said.

Getting in took more than two years of testing, which included proving that the measurement accuracy of the $200,000 AUG unit was within 1 per cent of laboratory tests. But it passed, and was selected to monitor water supplied to world leaders at the China-hosted APEC meetings.

Others have struggled. Vancouver-headquartered Westport Innovations Inc.'s joint venture to manufacture natural gas-powered engines in China saw revenue in the most recent quarter fall to $56-million (U.S.) from $113-million last year. Chief executive officer David Demers has blamed "global energy price volatility and the economic turbulence."

Investors, however, smell opportunity. Beijing SPC Environmental Protection Technology, of which its products scrub sulphur from coal plants, has seen its stock rise 46 per cent this year, compared with less than 3 per cent for its Shenzhen market.

China's problems are sparking new creativity, too. Over the past 18 months, Beijing-based Origins Technology has engineered a new room air filter and hand-held air quality monitor, "tested especially in the crazy environment we have here," said co-founder Jessica Lam, a Canadian.

As air quality worsens elsewhere, what's made for China could also have broader appeal. In a recent 48-hour period, levels of PM2.5 particles, which are tied to respiratory problems and lung cancer, have hit 148 micrograms per cubic metre in Paris, 63 in Toronto, 81 in New York and 118 in London. The World Health Organization has set an annual average of 10 as a healthy guideline.

As for the Banff air, there are already signs of Asian interest. A Vancouver company bought a bottle for a delegation of visiting Chinese officials, saying "luxurious air" seemed a better gift than the stale standbys of maple syrup and ice wine.

There are cheaper ways to save your lungs than buying air imported from Canada. At 150 breaths per $24.50 (Canadian) bottle, it would take boxes-full to get through a single day, with an average human breathing roughly 20,000 times.

But Moses Lam, whose Edmonton company spends 10 hours at a time capturing the Mount Norquay air, already has visions of selling a million bottles in his first 12 months.

"Just gotta put one foot in front of the other," he said in an e-mail. "But if I were to guess, I would want 2.5 million bottles into China the second year."

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