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It is not an everyday sight in the Netherlands: cyclists with a face mask that protects them from harmful substances in the air. In China, people look less surprised when someone walks around with it. Adel Arigue believes that Europe can take another step in this direction. Not surprisingly, as he is CEO of Airbliss+, which produces high-tech air-filtering masks for consumers. Innovation Origins visited the startup at the High Tech Campus.

Better air quality?
In many European countries, air quality is improving – also in the Netherlands, according to RIVM figures, the amount of particles has fallen by 30-35% since the early 1990s – so why should we have to put on the masks?
“Particle matter (PM) consists of various particles such as PM10, PM2.5, the smaller the particles, the more harmful they are,” explains Arigue. “But not all particles can be measured and other harmful substances are not even taken into account. Moreover, it is extremely expensive to measure everything properly everywhere, this could be done much better. According to the World Health Organisation, 7 million people die every year as a result of air pollution. It will not take long and air pollution will be the number one cause of death worldwide.” Arigue moves on, enthusiastically he continues: “What about tiny particles of rubber from car tyres that end up in the air? This is not taken into account in measurements. But the harmful effects are there.  Perhaps the 7 million is actually much higher.”  

5 trillion dollar welfare losses
Arigue has its doubts about the standards (both from the WHO and EU) because they do not make any statements about ultra-fine dust. These are particles that are even smaller, penetrating deeper into the lungs. He’s not alone in his doubts. “Everyone measures different particles and the standards that are used are different everywhere. That is confusing. This should be much easier to understand.” By way of example, he cites a study by the World Bank which concludes that the global economy is running at a loss of USD 225 billion for all those who die prematurely as a result of air pollution. “But when you look at welfare losses worldwide the World Bank calculated that 5,1 trillion dollar is lost due to air pollution. In China, this is 10% of the GDP, that’s around 1 trillion dollars. If you tell this to people, translate it into money, the problem becomes more understandable, more tangible. When the WHO or other organisations talk about particles per m3 all the time, people get lost. Not everyone understands this.”

Airbliss+ wants to solve this problem by providing the masks with sensors that can measure and transmit the air quality live. “It’s not just a service to our users, because it allows them to see exactly which route they should avoid. But it is greater, if a lot of people use our product, we are able to map out the pollution in the city much better. In this way, it will also be a statement to the government: do something about it. Actually, the masks are the beginning of our adventure, we want to make this much bigger and change the city in a positive way. This can be achieved by identifying bottlenecks.” tells Arigue.

Comfort is key
Arigue travelled a lot for his former work in the Middle East and Asia. In Tehran, he saw a traffic controller standing on one of the busiest squares in the city. He was no longer wearing an air pollution mask, it was hanging loosely around his neck. “Too warm and he had trouble breathing, so he turned it off after just a few hours. This man breaths in the unprotected dirty air for 6 hours a day because his mask is not comfortable enough.”  That is the reason why Airbliss+ first wants to focus on comfort. “As soon as you take off the mask, it’s of no use to you, of course. With our patented system, we want to make sure that people have the best breathing experience. Supported by a seal that is soft on the skin. With this seal the inward leakage of bad air will be minimized. The fan is designed to compensate for the pressure drop created by the filter, so when the user breathes in, it feels the same as normal. Through our outlet valve heat and moisture will be efficiently expelled from the mask.”  

Everyday hero’s
The filters in the masks are safe, ensures Arigue.  “We don’t make them ourselves, but buy them from certified parties. They are used for face protection in the industry where everything is strictly controlled by legislation. These filters have been scientifically tested and approved.” Soon Airbliss+ will start a trial in London, where first users will give feedback on the product. “We don’t want to make another gadget that you can pair with your phone, it has to be comfortable and has added value. The commuters are the everyday heroes, they don’t use the car and make sure the air gets less dirty. But they are the ones most exposed to the same harmful substances. That is the wrong thing about this. Their safety is at the top of our list.”

Photo: HightechXL. Adel Arigue en Aaron Hu