They call Mongolia the “land of blue sky”; its spectacular desert, forest and grasslands are blessed by sun for two-thirds of the year. However, climb to a snow-dusted hilltop overlooking Ulan Bator and you see a thick gray band hanging over the city. In the coming weeks, as temperatures plummet, the smog will spread across the streets and into homes, shutting out the light.
While Beijing’s “airpocalypse” has made headlines worldwide, it pales beside the haze of the Mongolian capital. Ulan Bator is the world’s second-most polluted city, superseded only by Ahvaz in Iran, according to WHO research.
Pollution is a common problem for quickly developing countries.
However, the biggest issue is not the smokestacks on the horizon — Mongolia’s manufacturing sector remains minute — nor the vehicles jamming the capital’s streets. Rather, it is the collision of urbanization and traditional culture: 60 percent to 70 percent of winter pollution comes from the old-fashioned stoves heating the circular felt tents or gers that sprawl across the slopes around the city.
More than half of the city’s 1.2 million inhabitants live in the impoverished ger districts, burning coal, wood and sometimes rubbish to cook and keep warm.
Ulan Bator is the world’s chilliest capital, with temperatures dipping as low as minus-40?C in January.
“As soon as people start getting cold they start up their stoves, and that’s when the smog begins. It looks like thick fog and every year it’s getting worse. It’s only a bit of an exaggeration to say you could get lost in it,” said Otgonsetseg Lodoisambuu, who lives in a district to the north of the city with his children.
“The little one stays inside all the time in the winter, but my older son is in first grade now, so we have to take him to school; I just put a scarf over his face. The only time it’s OK to let the kids out is between one and two in the afternoon, when people let their fires die down because they have finished cooking. In the morning it hurts my throat as soon as I go outside. It must be hurting my lungs, too,” he said.
Ulan Bator’s pollutant levels of PM2.5 — tiny particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into lungs — are six or seven times higher than the WHO’s most lenient air-quality guidelines for developing countries.
Researchers say the result is that one in every 10 deaths is caused by air pollution — on their most conservative estimate.
Ryan Allen, of Simon Fraser University, in Canada, who led the study, said the true figure could be as high as one in five.
The study did not consider the effects of indoor air pollution, excluded the deaths of those aged under 30 and was based on data from a centrally located government monitoring site, in a relatively less polluted area of the city.
He and his Mongolian co-researchers are now studying how pollution affects fetuses and whether using air filters could reduce the impact; Ulan Bator’s public health institute has warned of a sharp increase in birth defects in the capital as well as a 45 percent rise in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses between 2004 and 2008.
The World Bank has estimated that pollution-related health problems cost the country US$470 million annually.
Bayanzurkh District hospital vice-director Byambaa Onio arrived in the capital 46 years ago, when it was “a nice, clean city”; now the pollution levels are “disastrous,” he said — and are producing a growing number of patients.