BANGOR, Maine — In an increasingly polluted world, selling clean Maine air could be the state’s next marketable industry.
The latest American Lung Association air quality study concluded that the Bangor metropolitan area, with a population of about 153,000, is among 25 cities across the country with the purest air.
The recognition has led one Canadian entrepreneur who actually packages pristine air in Canada and ships it to paying customers around the world to say he may be interested in expanding his operation to the Pine Tree State.
“Maine might be our next location,” Moses Lam, CEO of Vitality Air in Alberta, Canada, said Friday.
According to the American Lung Association, Bangor harbors some of the cleanest air in the country for particle pollutants — a mix of liquid and solid particles, such as dust, soot and smoke.
Maine’s third largest city also is in the top 11 in the country and the only city in New England, from 2013 to 2015 — the targeted timeline for the study — found to have some of the cleanest particle pollutant air on a day-to-day and a yearly basis.
Data were gathered from each of Maine’s 16 counties, with Androscoggin, Aroostook and Oxford counties ranking among the cleanest counties in the country when it comes to ozone pollution.
Even more noteworthy is the inverse of the study, though, which found that nearly half — 4 out of 10 people, or 125 million people in the U.S. — live in a place with unclean air, either from high levels of ozone or particle pollutants.
That pollution is what has led to the successful — but what many consider absurd — marketing of bottled or canned fresh air to parts of the world where a clean breath might be hard to come by.
In the same way that the manufacturing of bottled water became ubiquitous in response to unclean tap water, according to fresh air purveyor Lam, bottling and selling 8-liter cans of fresh air is the “wave of the future.”
Lam started selling air on eBay as a joke, but the novelty item took off. Since 2014 he has been harvesting and canning clean air from Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta and exporting it across the globe.
A single 8-liter can of fresh Canadian Rocky Mountain air, expected to last for between 150 and 200 breaths, is $28. The experience of inhaling the canned air is described on the company’s website as “pure, just as it would exist if you were standing on that mountain, yourself and breathing in the lush green trees and snow-crested peaks.”
“We almost want it to be like bottled water. Instead of taking dirty water and cleaning it, we’re literally moving the (clean air) from one place to another,” Lam told the BDN Friday. Sales of cans to China — home of some of the worst smog smitten cities in the world — alone number in the multiple hundreds of thousands.
A Beijing-based businessman from Toronto, who received a can of air for Christmas 2015 as a joke from a friend told Mashable.com last year he is now “addicted.”
“I keep a bottle on my desk and take some deep breaths when no one is looking. It’s good stress relief,” the 32-year-old, who didn’t want to be identified because he was “too embarrassed,” told Mashable.
“It seems to make sense conceptually,” Tanya Emery, economic development director for Bangor, said of the possibility of capitalizing on clean air as a marketable industry.
Natural resources are “very high” on Maine’s list of “competitive advantages,” she said.
Emery said she thinks of Maine’s air as a profitable asset, not only for attracting people to move to the state but one that with a viable business model could be exported.
When one thinks of the state at the global level, Maine has a “brand equity” that’s associated with clean, quality outdoors, she said.
“If you’re going to choose a place from North America that’s going to bottle air and sell it to places that are desperately in need of it, it would absolutely make sense to do it from a place like Maine,” Emery said.
“Maine might be our next location,” he said.
While his company’s brand and specialty is selling pure Canadian air — “with us being Canadians, we really want to flog the Canadian product” — being that Maine is so close, expanding Vitality Air’s cultivation to the mountains or lakes of the Pine Tree State is not out of the question, Lam said.
One of the first goals in scouting a new location would be to find somewhere especially “photogenic,” he said, and “a place that’s very well-known, readily marketable, (and) somewhere that’s easily accessible for people (to visit),” he said.
Being able to showcase unadulterated wilderness as the source of air that one is breathing was “definitely one of the marketing avenues” for Vitality Air, Lam said; but so was touting the health benefits of breathing fresh air, contrasted against the “silent killer” that is pollution, he said.
Realistically, “pollution is not going to get better [and air quality] is only going to be worse and worse,” Lam said.
And while his company sells primarily to notoriously polluted areas such as China, Korea and Mexico, there is undoubtedly a demand for smaller markets, he said.
Even minor exposure to pollution, such as particle pollutants, can curb life expectancy, the American Lung Association reported. New England residents over the age of 65, for example, were found to face a heightened risk of premature death because of exposure to higher levels of even just short-term particle pollution, according to the 2017 study. Exposure can cause lung cancer, increased risk for heart attack and general deterioration of the cardiovascular system.
Cathy Conlow, Bangor city manager, said she is “pleased but not surprised” that Bangor scored so high for air quality. The city has made a pointed effort in recent years to take certain environmental cleanup measures and support environmentally friendly infrastructure, such as “multi-modal transportation,” she said.
The study found that the overall air quality across the country is improving, thanks to greener infrastructure and the general proliferation of environmentally friendly vehicles and engines.
But there’s still a long way to go. In the meantime, capitalizing on an otherwise untapped industry might not be such a bad idea.
“Maine needs to look at more opportunities to market our products to the global marketplace,” Emery said. In Bangor, “we try to look for the niches in the industry that we think we can be competitive in. [Air] is a replenishing resource. It would be great to be able to build on that.”