Two years ago, while on her daily bike commute to a fashion job in Paris, Caroline van Renterghem had to stop: She was struggling to breathe. Despite the city's aggressive attempts to curb smog—from banning some traffic to offering deals on electric car rentals—pollution in Paris often spikes to unsafe levels, making it hard to ride a bike.
Van Renterghem started looking for a mask that she could wear as she rode, but couldn't find one that she liked, either in terms of looks or function. She decided to design Wair, a scarf that attempts to disguise an active air filtration device.
"She wanted to protect herself," says Bénédicte Viseux, who leads communications for Wair. "She tried all sorts of masks that were not comfortable and absolutely not aesthetic. And by learning a little bit more, she also discovered they were very inefficient. Most of them do not filter the very little microparticles that are the most harmful elements of air pollution."
The scarf, which charges via USB, communicates with an app that suggests the least polluted routes to cyclists and pedestrians. When air pollution levels get too high, the app sends a warning to pull on the scarf.
Hidden inside the scarf, a tiny turbine blows air through a filter that can catch virtually all microparticles. The scarf can also be used on the subway to protect someone from germs (or, depending on the subway, more pollution underground).
While a growing number of Parisians wear some type of mask on polluted days, the startup thinks that the new design can make it more likely for others to follow, in France and elsewhere.
"We believe that to encourage people to protect themselves, style is an important feature," says Viseux. "If those antipollution masks were more aesthetic people would wear them more often."