It's no surprise that the biggest polluters are also the most at risk: China, which boasts one of the world's fastest growing economies, also has the world's "deadliest" air, according to the World Health Organization.
For those who live here, the news shouldn't come as much of a shock. Pollution has become so ingrained in daily Chinese life that pollution masks featuring bold colors and flashy patterns have become must-have accessories for young urbanites concerned about breathing and looking good.
Two years ago, Beijing-based designer Masha Ma paired her garbs with Swarovski crystal-studded masks on the catwalks of Paris, then went on to sell them online alongside Chloe bags and Chanel pumps. At international schools around Beijing, students play inside million-dollar domes that act as air filters.
It's into this environment that award-winning Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde
unveiled his Smog Free Tower, a seven-meter (23 feet) tall structure that combines beautiful design and technological advancement, during Beijing Design Week.
A smog vacuum
Looking like a cross between a spaceship and a traditional Chinese pagoda, the Smog Free Tower is essentially a giant air purifier created through a collaboration between Roosegaarde, Delft Technology University and European Nano Solutions, a green tech company in the Netherlands.
"It's the largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world," Roosegaarde says.
Here's how it works: Using ion technology, the tower attracts and sucks in small pollution particles by sending positive ions into the air. Once inside the tower, these particles attach themselves to a grounded, negatively charged surface -- what's called a counter electrode.
Vents in the lower part of the tower then expel the clean air, creating a smog-free bubble around the structure.
"The tower cleans 30,000 cubic meters of air an hour," Roosegarde says, or roughly a football stadium per day.
The process improves surrounding air quality by 75 percent and, Roosegarde claims, and doesn't produce ozone, as the particles are charged with positive voltage rather than negative ("the safest way to handle high volumes of dirty air," he says). The tower runs on no more than 1,400 watts, or the equivalent of what it takes to power a water boiler.
Roosegaarde and his team have also figured out how to compress the captured particles into tiny "gemstones" that are then sealed in a resin cube and mounted onto rings and cufflinks. (Each stone is the result of about 1,000 cubic meters of filtered air.)
Partly funded through Kickstarter, the Smog Free Tower took just over two and a half years to develop. Its pilot was unveiled last year in Rotterdam, where Roosegaarde's design studio is based, but it is to China that it owes much of its existence: Roosegaarde conceived the idea in Beijing in 2013.
"I distinctively remember looking out of my hotel window one day and simply not being able to see anything," he says. "From one day to the next, the city had disappeared under a thick blanket of smog."
Roosegaarde currently has the backing of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, which has asked him to take his project across the country, with four more stops planned after Beijing. The support comes amid the government's reinforced efforts to tackle pollution, an integral part of China's 13th Five-Year Plan released last March.
Throughout his tour, Roosegaarde will meet with universities, schools and environmental organizations.
"The goal is not only to offer a local, tangible solution to create clean parks," he says, "but also setting a new sense of beauty -- a clean future -- through the sensory experience of clean air."
Just the beginning
Most of Roosegaarde's projects are public-oriented and socially conscious. His Smart Highway project, for instance, envisions roads that charge during the day and glow at night, while Waterlicht uses LED technology to show rising water levels.
Such ambitious endeavors aren't going unnoticed: Studio Roosegaarde just won the Design Innovation Medal at the London Design Festival.
But while Roosegaarde has high hopes for his Smog Free Tower, he knows it's not a permanent solution.
"Since we installed it in Beijing, the tower has collected daily as much smog as it did over two weeks in the Netherlands," Roosegaarde says. "This is an issue that can't be fixed overnight, nor with just one tower. We need a bottom-up effort, with both citizens and governments actively working for change.
"My hope is that one day in 10 or 15 years, we'll look back at it and find it obsolete. The pressing question is how are we going to get there? This," he says, pointing at the tower, "is a start."