Sales billowing for air purifiers

Health concerns push U.S. sales of air-cleaning systems to $395 million in '03, but competition turns dirty as more players enter the market

October 25, 2004|By Susan Chandler, Tribune staff reporter.

Pat Boone is crooning a different tune these days.

He is singing the praises of Living Air, a high-tech air purifier that promises to scrub indoor air clean of everything from fish odors to cigarette smoke.

"You can survive weeks without food, days without water but only minutes without air," Boone says in ads on Chicago radio. "It just makes sense for your family to breathe fresh air."

Helping consumers breathe easier has become a big business. In the last five years, U.S. sales of air-cleaning systems shot up 34 percent, to $395 million in 2003, according to a study by the Freedonia Group Inc., an independent Cleveland-based market research firm. That figure is expected to grow 5.4 percent annually and exceed a half-billion dollars by 2008 as more companies barrage consumers with messages touting the benefits of pristine air, retail consultants say.

"Fifteen years ago, people thought it was crazy to buy bottled water," said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a retail consulting firm headquartered in Florida. "There is now consciousness-raising about poor air quality. We've built too many buildings where we cannot open windows."

Much of the current competition is focused on high-tech air purifiers, the kind represented by EcoQuest International's Living Air and Sharper Image's Ionic Breeze. They sell for about $300 and up, although other manufacturers' models that rely on older, high-efficiency particulate air-filter technology can be had at discount stores such as Wal-Mart for as little as $30.

Few experts expect air purifiers to become the next microwave oven, an appliance that once struck consumers as bizarre but now is found in 90 percent of U.S. households.

Yet for the growing number of families in which someone suffers from asthma or allergies, air purifiers soon may be considered a necessity, Cohen predicted.

Other consumers concerned about healthful living, including many aging Baby Boomers, already have added an air purifier to their anti-aging arsenal of vitamins, organic vegetables and filtered water.

Some even are wearing miniaturized air purifiers around their necks on airplane trips. Sharper Image sells air cleaners for use in cars and office cubicles.

The case for air purification was bolstered by a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency in the mid-1990s.

The government agency best known for cleaning up toxic waste sites came to a surprising conclusion: "The air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities."

Because people spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, "The risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors," the EPA said. Ironically, the pollution levels are greater in many newer, energy-efficient homes that have less air leakage.

"The EPA is advertising for us better than anyone else," said Shane Cohen, marketing product manager for Oreck Corp. in New Orleans, the vacuum cleaner company that also sells air purifiers through direct-mail, infomercials and a chain of 450 Oreck stores around the country.

Even so, the competition to sell clean air is becoming downright dirty.

The Federal Trade Commission slapped several air purifier companies with fines for making claims about their products that aren't supported by science.

After Consumer Reports gave Sharper Image's air purifier poor grades in 2002 and 2003, Sharper Image sued the magazine, alleging that its findings were false and misleading. It also sued some competitors, alleging they have infringed Sharper Image's patents by copying the Ionic Breeze's design or technology too closely.

The people at Oreck suggest that Living Air purifiers come with some risk for those with respiratory problems because its machines use ozone to clean the air. Ozone, an extremely energetic form of oxygen found in the upper atmosphere, can be hazardous when it makes its way into the air we breathe, hence ozone action days.

EcoQuest International, the company that makes Living Air, says its first-generation purifiers did use ozone, but the level was carefully monitored by the purifiers to make sure it stayed within safe parameters. Its second-generation machines use much less ozone.

Mike Jackson, president and founder of EcoQuest, scoffs at Oreck's concerns.

"By the way, that's a vacuum cleaner company. I don't really try to explain how vacuum cleaners work."

Results speak for themselves, Jackson said. Privately held EcoQuest, which sells its purifiers through a nationwide network of home-based businesses, has sold more than $1 billion in air purifiers, the bulk of them in the last five or six years.

The battle is likely to get uglier.

Source : http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2004-10-25/business/0410250103_1_purifiers-high-tech-air-air-filter

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