Air pollution is racking up column inches like never before and as a result is vastly heightened in the public’s consciousness. During last week’s London mayoral election analysis of social media pointed to six percent of tweets relating to air quality. With that in mind we took the opportunity to pin down Respro CEO Harry Cole to discuss the science behind the dirty air, portrayal of the issue in the press and how to protect yourself against an invisible killer.
“If the emissions were visible, perhaps coloured, you’d see just how bad things are. The thing about pollution is that it’s the invisible threat. People wouldn’t drink water if it wasn’t clear and they’ll filter it where possible anyway, but in consuming bad air there’s a lack of proper understanding,” says Cole.
Cambridge University researchers recently concluded that to cycle in cities with dirty air offers greater health benefits than the adverse risk, but things are not always as clear cut as they seem, says Cole.
“We calculated that on an average half an hour cycle you’ll take in around 3,600 litres of air. All of that will have various particulate matter and gases floating about within and that’s all got to be excreted by the body in one form or another. The thing many people don’t realise is that one and one can often make three. These particulates in the air react with each other either in the air, or inside the lungs. There’s five types of pollution, each with its own adverse affect.”
Importantly, Cole says that in taking readings of the air, those providing information or forecasting often may not provide the full picture.
“Samples are very often taken from the pavement side, not in the road. If you’re closer to an exhaust it stands to reason you’ll inhale a greater concentration and that often isn’t considered. I’ve little doubt that many reports on pollution don’t do the problem justice, particularly for those in the roads.”
Designing out dirty air
The reports have however had a marked effect on Cole’s business. Having also founded cycling brand Hump, Cole sold the high-visibility arm to his exclusive UK distributor Madison in 2013.
“I was expecting a big loss in turnover after the sale,” says Cole. “But that didn’t materialise, Respro business more than made up for it. We’re now very much a global business, with 50% of our product shipped to 26 countries around the globe.”
As you might expect, the notorious territories for bad air make up a good chunk of business, but worryingly there are more and more emerging markets.
“The product is made here in the UK in Cornwall, Tyne and Wear and Scotland. With demand the way it is we’ve recently moved to a larger warehouse by Heathrow from which we’re shipping all over. The Latin Americas and India are two territories in which we’re growing trade.”
A cyclist himself, Cole’s main market is cycle stores, though the business produces product for everything from fire and rescue, allergies, urban training and motorcycling.
“The cyclist is a difficult customer in that they always look for fashion often over function. As a product it has those health and wellbeing synergies, but you have to appeal to the fickle side in the design.”
Design aside, the product is more complex than some may believe, explains Cole.
“23 years of R&D and hard graft have gone into the Respro line, which very much puts us in the driving seat. It’s a premium product that uses the best materials and is considered in its design. There’s three components – the shell, filter and valves – and that’s important in that you need to regulate heat release, filtration and water vapour. The valves open and close as you breathe and the pads will typically last 69 hours before they begin to lose functionality, though this depends on a few variables and I recommend more regular filter swaps.”
How does a bike retailer sell a pollution mask?
Costing between £24 and £59, with replacement filters coming in at £17 for two, the urban bike retailer has an a countertop sale with Respro, says Cole.
“The POS material is all very educational, should the customer pick one up out of curiosity, but largely I prefer to ensure the retailer and their staff are educated on the product. It’s surprising how many of my customers want to know more about this issue and can see the sense in selling the product, therefore it translates well when customers walk in. Clean air has become more than just a health issue and people will base votes on it, so it’s easier than it used to be to make a sale.”
On closer inspection of the box you’ll find the chorus to Jesse J’s Price Tag. Why?, I ask Cole.
“It’s not about the money,” he jokes. “We’re a goodwill company and we want to see people looking after themselves. In recent times i’ve pushed the quality of the entry-level product up to make sure our customers get the best protection we can offer. I’ve also gone to great lengths to ensure the user almost forgets they’re wearing the mask. If it’s uncomfortable they’ll leave it behind, or not purchase in the first place, so we use mostly neoprene which conforms to your face.”
The four available sizes fit 95% of the population, but it is imperative that the mask creates a seal, says Respro.
“Failure to create an effective seal will allow unfiltered air to pass around the sides of the mask and into the respiratory system. This is known as ‘Inward Leakage’. A ‘one size fits all’ mask will invariably offer a poor fit and an ineffective seal and will place the mask squarely in the useless product bin. Like shoe sizing, one size does not fit all.”
On the political arguement for cleaner air, Cole says that it’s hard to campaign for change when green debates so often get hijacked.
“There’s a lot of false information circulating regarding pollution,” concludes Cole. “Air quality isn’t a new issue, but it’s become a popular topic and with that comes a lot of skewed facts. If meaningful change is to occur, the quickest answer is to rid city centres of the private vehicle.”
What pollutants are out there?
Pollution is made of two distinct categories:
- Gases and Vapours
Most types of pollution can be put into one or other category.
- Gases & Vapours:
- Nitrogen Oxides
- Sulphur Dioxide
- Carbon Monoxide
- Low level Ozone
- Hydrocarbon Chemicals
These pollutants all require an activated carbon filter media to absorb them.
- Asbestos dust from brake linings
- Road dust
- Black smoke from diesel emissions
- Any other material which is solid in nature
There are two categories of particulates: inhalable and respirable
- Inhalable particulates: are the particles big enough to be trapped within the nasal hairs and the mucous membranes at the back of the throat.
- Respirable particulates: are the particles that pass beyond the nasal hairs and the mucous membranes of the throat and pass into the lung sacs and subsequent blood barrier. These particulates can carry carcinogenic chemicals used in petrol (benzene, pyrene, etc) to the blood barrier.
The science of what is and isn’t dangerous
Particulate Matter comes in a wide range of sizes, measured in micrometres or ‘microns’. Like inches, metres and miles, a micron is a unit of measurement for distance, a very small distance. There are 1,000 microns in one millimetre and about the same width of a hair on your head.
Particulates that are 50+ microns in diameter can be seen by the naked eye, but as they get smaller they tend to invisibility. (The Invisible Threat)
Particulates less than 10 microns in diameter (less than PM10) start to pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into the back of the throat region causing irritation and coughing.
Particulates less than 2.5 microns in diameter (less thanPM2.5) which include sub micron particulates (less than PM1) are referred to as fine or ‘respirable’ particulates and are believed to pose the greatest health risk.
Because of their size, the normal human filtering system, the nose and its nasal hair, are unable to trap these fine particulates. They pass through the upper airways and deep into the fine capillaries and air sacs which is where the oxygen exchange occurs to oxygenate the blood.
Current concerns are that very small amounts of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals like the VOC Pyrene, are carried on the particle and taken to the point of exchange, which allows for the potential of the chemical to be absorbed into the blood stream.
A typical sample of black smoke emitted from one of the more popular people carrying vehicles, would include particulates from 100 microns in size to particulates less than one micron in size.