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Atmos Faceware makes clean air an expensive accessory

Climate change is a new target for personal technology

Ao Air

Ao Air’s Atmos Faceware is positioning itself as a tech-driven solution to increasing levels of air pollution in a world that’s literally and figuratively burning. But the $350 gadget, which just debuted at CES, may be beyond the price range of people who are most vulnerable to the very problem its seeking to address.

Breathing in pollutant-filled air is dangerous: it can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions, and can increase risk for stroke, heart disease, and some cancers. People enduring the bushfires in Australia, or who survived California’s intense wildfire seasons have to contend with not only the flames, but dangerous smoke as well. And even areas far from wildfires sometimes contend with air choked with tiny, harmful particles.

Atmos Faceware wants to be the solution to people’s air quality concerns. The company commissioned its own study that found the mask provided better protection against particulate matter than standard air filter masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (The study has not been published, and has not been peer reviewed.) Ao Air bills it as a new solution to air pollution protection: unlike most face masks and other respirators, the Atmos Faceware does not require an airtight seal to be effective, according to the company press release. Facial hair, sweat, and other factors that can normally disrupt a seal don’t hinder Faceware’s function, the company says.

Wearing Atmos Faceware is also being pushed as a design choice, as well as a health one: “Our transparent design rests on the bridge of your nose, allowing others to see your face including your smile,” wrote Ao Air in their press release.

It’s also an expensive choice: the mask, along with four extra filters, will eventually retail for $350, according to a spokesperson. Only a “limited number” of the masks are currently available for presale during CES. For comparison, a N95 mask, the most common NIOSH-certified mask, goes for around $15.

Air filters are becoming more popular as the world heats up. Climate change is only going to make fire seasons longer and more intense, increasing the number of days with high levels of air pollution from wildfires. Fires aren’t the only way climate change affects pollution levels, either: hotter temperatures can mean more stagnant air, and more ozone clogging the air near the ground.

Against that grim backdrop, turning protection against the impacts of global climate change into an expensive accessory and status symbol is a natural target for personal technology. Even before author Naomi Klein coined the term “disaster capitalism” in 2007, companies have been moving in to capitalize on people’s concern over natural disasters and poor environmental conditions.

Air filtering masks have been fashion items in China and India for years, and companies have been poking at the edges of the American market. It might be that masks go the same way as luxury sunglasses, wrote Rose Eveleth at Vox this spring. “Like sunglasses, some masks will be cheap and not really work to protect you, while others will be expensive, luxurious items that you keep for years,” she wrote.

Wealthier people already breathe in cleaner air — air pollution tends to be concentrated in low income areas — and bear less of the burden of environmental problems, natural disasters, and climate change. Even if high-tech face masks give better protection against the health effects of air pollution, they’ll only add to climate-related inequalities if they’re only available to people who can afford the price tag.