Mongolian winter smog surge ‘hell’ for children
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Several thousand people braved icy temperatures (-20°C or -4°F) in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, on Saturday, January 28, to join a protest demanding that the government take action against dangerous levels of air pollution. This city, whose residents rely heavily on charcoal burning to keep warm in the winter, is one of the most polluted cities on earth and locals are suffering from serious health problems because of it.
The most recent protest was organised by the NGO "Moms & Dads Against Smog". This organisation, which is made up of concerned parents, was created in early January 2017, a few days after the first large protest about this issue, which was held on December 26.
Ulaanbaatar is one of the coldest capital cities in the world. In the winter, temperatures can drop to -40°C (which is, weirdly enough, actually equivalent to -40°F). The city’s 1.3 million residents account for half of the Mongolian population.
To keep warm, many people use coal-fire stoves, especially people living in yurts [Editor’s note: portable round tents]. About 60% of the population live in these traditional structures, many of which are clustered in the low-income neighbourhoods on the city outskirts that do not always have access to electricity. In addition to coal, some people also burn plastic and old tires, all of which leads to a large amount of pollution in the winter. Moreover, the population of these neighbourhoods swell during the coldest months, when nomadic herders set up their yurts to winter in the city.
The pollution from households combines with pollution from the city’s thermal power stations-- which run at full-speed during the winter. The air quality is further deteriorated by the city’s factories and many cars.
The result is that the concentration of fine particles in Ulaanbaatar is seven times higher, on average, than the standards established by the World Health Organization (WHO). In the winter, this can sometimes rise to 25 times higher than WHO recommendations. The capital becomes engulfed with a thick cloud of pollution, even though Mongolia is nicknamed the land of the blue skies.
“Sometimes, in the winter, I go abroad to escape the pollution”Oyunaa (not her real name) participated in the protest this Saturday.
I’ve been suffering from asthma for the past three years. I think it is very likely related to the pollution. From November to March [Editor’s note: The coldest and most polluted months of the year], I can’t go out of the house without wearing a mask. I avoid going to the office, because that means I have to go out during the morning and evening rush hours, when it is even more polluted.
Most of the time, I work from home. I actually choose to live outside the capital during the winter [to avoid the pollution]. Sometimes, I actually go abroad during this period.
"I had two miscarriages-- the doctors told me that it was linked to the pollution”
When I was about 30, I miscarried twice-- once at 9 weeks and a second time at 12 weeks. The doctors told me that it was linked to the pollution and that it is a common occurence here.
[When contacted by France 24, Batbayar Ochirbat, a health specialist who lives in Ulaanbaatar said that doctors had told him that they perform opertations to remove dead foetuses “five to six times a day because they die from pollution.”] Now, I probably won’t be able to have children because I am too old.
I’m not the only person who suffers from this. I have lots of friends who have chronic coughs. My nephews and nieces constantly have colds, the flu or respiratory infections like pneumonia.
The lungs of young children who grow up in the city are much weaker than those who are raised in the countryside.
"We are slowly dying here… "
We are slowly dying here, but, for a long time, the government hasn’t done anything about it. However, we are already seeing the impact of these protests. Starting on January 1, people living in yurts have had free access to electricity from 9pm to 6am as a way to get them to burn less charcoal [Editor’s note: Many people use charcoal because it is cheaper than electricity.] On January 10, authorities also recognized that air pollution had reached a “disastrous” level. The government also decided to make certain medicine available for free for children under the age of five and to extend the hours of hospitals.
According to several studies, one out of every ten deaths in Ulaanbaatar is related to air pollution. Young children are especially affected by this problem, because their immune system and their lungs are not entirely developed. According to UNICEF, respiratory infections are one of the main causes of death amongst children. Pneumonia is responsible for 15% of deaths for children under the age of five. UNICEF also reported that air pollution increases the risk for premature birth.
This article was written with the help of Alimaa Altangerel (@altanalim).