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The problem with air pollution in India

Liam Bates, co-founder of air-monitoring technology start-up Kaiterra speaks to Lounge on purifiers, masks and understanding pollution

Liam Bates, co-founder of Beijing-based air-monitoring technology start-up Kaiterra. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Liam Bates, co-founder of Beijing-based air-monitoring technology start-up Kaiterra. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes seven million deaths annually across the world. Of this, 3.8 million deaths are caused by household or indoor air pollution. The statistics are pretty grim—a majority of the world’s population breathes polluted air all the time. If you think these statistics don’t apply to you, Liam Bates would like to disabuse you of the notion. The co-founder of Beijing-based air-monitoring technology start-up Kaiterra was in Delhi, a city often in the news for its hazardous pollution levels, for an event earlier this month. “Pollution is hard to detect, especially when the sky is blue like today," he jokes before turning his attention to indoor air pollution. “You hear statistics like breathing polluted air for an hour is like smoking 200 cigarettes. And then you realize that the time you spent sleeping was equal to smoking 100 cigarettes." Bates spoke to Lounge about the importance of air monitoring and the state of air in India. Edited excerpts:

What got you interested in air monitoring and how did you start the company?

I live in Beijing and a few years ago, it was a lot like (what) Delhi is now. It’s different there now but there was a lack of awareness about air pollution and it really started from wanting to understand the issue. I invested in air-monitoring equipment and I was shocked to realize that there wasn’t much of a difference in pollution level indoors and outside. The equipment was quite expensive and there weren’t too many options in the market then. So it really grew from a pain point—what on earth we were breathing and helping other people see it.

What kind of research and development went into developing your products?

Traditional air-monitoring equipment can be extremely expensive and bulky—you would have to call in a team of specialists to use the air-monitoring equipment. We had to try and bring down the price, miniaturize it and also make it look good. Our first product (prototype) was made in a paper cup, and we went from that to a plastic prototype, 3D printing and so forth. Laser Egg was a relatively affordable product, which also measured air accurately and now we have the Sensedge for bigger spaces. We want to make air monitoring more accessible.

India, especially Delhi, is always in the news for pollution levels. How difficult is the situation here?

Depending on the season, Delhi is unfortunately one of the most polluted places in the world. But there are many places that don’t measure air quality. Pakistan has only recently started publishing air quality data and many places in Africa don’t measure or publish any air quality information. Delhi is more like ‘one of the most polluted cities in the world that publish air quality information’.

And it’s not just Beijing and Delhi. We have seen people adopting our devices in cities like New York and San Francisco too.

What do you think are the challenges in understanding and purifying the air?

The major lack of awareness is actually how easy and sometimes low-cost it can be to fix the problem. Some purifiers are better than others, but even a cheap purifier is useful. If the air is cleaner by 50%, that’s already a lot better. There are also these similar concepts that a lot of people have—if I stay inside, it’s fine, or I live next to a park. That’s nonsense.

A lot of people think they are better off with trees and parks around. Aren’t they?

There’s no correlation between them at all. Trees don’t have a filtration system for the polluting particle. Planting trees is good for morale, for making people feel happy. But it can’t fix air pollution. You have to ban vehicles that don’t use clean fuel, you close factories or make them install filtration systems. Those are things that actually fix pollution.

What are some of the shortcomings of available purifiers?

Low-cost purifiers may not work as well. It comes down to how much clean air the device can put out. If you have a very large space, (the machine) would be more expensive, But there are lots of affordable, small devices that you can just put in your bedroom. Bedrooms usually aren’t huge and you can run it all the time and get 8 hours of clean air while you sleep.

Are there any other popular myths about indoor air pollution?

Earlier, a lot of people would turn off their air purifier during the day. They would come home and turn it on, and by the time the air was clean, they were almost ready to wake up and go to work and turn it off. That’s not very efficient and it also happens that people forget to turn it on. Leave the purifier turned on 24x7; most of these things consume very little electricity. You can also leave it on a lower fan speed and in the long run, you might even save electricity and also have better air.

And can masks be effective in keeping the effects of pollution away?

It depends—some of them work very well. Like there are some brands that are very good—3M, for example, makes great masks. But I see people buying really expensive masks and I have to ask, would you rather spend the money on masks or improving the air inside. People spend 90% of their time indoors. Fixing the air in your home is a more logical cost-benefit.

What are your plans in the coming months, especially for India?

As a company, we want to fix the problems of outdoor (air pollution). We don’t want to be selling band-aids, you know, but work on the root causes that have been unidentified. And so the first step is to work out what the problem is. We have a lot of internal research and we hope to eventually make the data public

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