Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. But the Indian capital is also the birthplace of an innovative device that aims to prevent people from suffering the consequences of air pollution, a major contributor to noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular and chronic respiratory conditions.
The invention is called a Nasofilter – literally a filter that covers the nostrils and uses nanofibre-based technology. Its creators claim this is the first device of its kind to prevent up to 90 percent of PM2.5 (particulate matter under 2.5 micrometres in diameter) and 95 percent of PM10 from getting into our lungs through the nose.
The product was developed by Nanoclean Global, a local startup founded by a team of graduates and faculty members from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. It launched in November 2017, just days before a toxic blanket of smog covered the Indian capital. “As soon as we launched we got thousands of inquiries from schools, hospitals and companies in Delhi and across the country,” said one of the company’s co-founders, Prateek Sharma.
Sharma had grown up watching his mother struggle with asthma and was determined to help her protect her lungs. “No mask seemed to work,” he said. He had the idea for an air pollution filter during his last year of studies. In 2016, he joined with fellow graduates Tushar Vyas, Jatin Kewlani, Sanjeev Jain, and faculty members Ashwini Agrawal and Manjeet Jassal to develop the first Nasofilter prototype.
The filters can be used for up to 12 hours. They are barely noticeable, since the edges that stick to the bottom of the nose are almost transparent. “The concept is fairly simple,” Sharma explained. “The fibres allow surface filtration and, when you exhale, the filters clear out all the accumulated harmful particles.”
Today, the device sells for 10 Indian rupees (USD 0.14) a pair, and the startup is receiving bulk orders nationally and internationally from countries such as Iran, Dubai and Vietnam. “The response is very encouraging and we are growing”, said Sharma. “Of course demand grows when we have bad air days.”
It is no surprise that the product found a growing market in India. Between May 2015 and October 2017, Delhi saw only two days of “good” air quality, with the monsoon season bringing some relief, according to the Indian Central Pollution Control Board. In 2018 the capital enjoyed a few more precious days of good air quality, only thanks to the rain. But for most of the past 900-odd days, the city’s air quality has varied from severely polluted to very poor to satisfactory, even in the best weather.
Delhi’s doctors are alarmed about the damage this is causing to lungs and hearts. “There has been a huge rise of young, women and non-smoker patients coming in with lung cancer, which previously affected mostly smokers and adult men,” said Dr. Arvind Kumar, Founder and Trustee of Lung Care Foundation and Chairman of the Centre For Chest Surgery at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi.
A recent study conducted by the hospital links this trend to air pollution. “The occurrence of the disease in patients under 50 or even under 30 years of age, an increase in the proportion of women, and a nearly 1:1 ratio of non-smokers to smokers all point towards environmental factors such as air pollution as a major causative agent. These are trends that indicate something is terribly amiss,” noted the report.
But the scope of the problem goes far beyond lung cancer. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air. As cities’ air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them.
In 2016, a report in The Lancet noted that air pollution was responsible for 9.8 percent of the total is ease burden in India, the second leading risk factor in the country after child and maternal malnutrition.
Sharma believes the Nasofilter could bend the curve. “People who suffer from allergies and asthma use it year-round,” he said. So far, his company has been recognised by the South Korean government as one of the top 50 technical startups in the world. In 2017, it received the Indian government-sponsored Startups National Award, and was the only Indian startup among the 100 finalists of the Elevator Pitch Competition, in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the Nasofilter team is developing another device that could prevent bacteria from entering the body’s system. “We’re hoping to maybe even keep TB and other diseases at bay,” said Sharma. “Work is underway and we are very hopeful.”