Air pollution: It’s not just about you or me

Wearing our pollution masks to go to the store

I tend post a lot about air pollution on my personal Facebook page since I moved to Ulaanbaatar, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world during the winter. Someone brought to my attention that my air pollution posts seem like “whining.” I was taken aback; I had been thinking about them in entirely another way. Because of my interest in environmental issues and my awareness of how they effect people, I thought I had been showing my Facebook friends an aspect of life here in Ulaanbaatar that is really important. But I could see how they could be seen as complaining; not everyone sees things the way I do. So I thought I would write about it in a bit more detail. First, I’ll include some basic information on air pollution, and then I’ll talk about the context here in Ulaanbaatar.

One of the things about working in the environmental field is that you realize in a very fundamental way that everything is connected. I’ve written about this a bit already, and I’ll be writing more. But one thing about air pollution that’s inescapable is that everyone breathes the air. To some degree (I’ll qualify this at the end of my post), everyone is affected if the air becomes poison, which it surely does in Ulaanbaatar for much of the year. According to Plume, my air pollution monitoring app, the current level of air pollution here is “extreme,” with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 211, and the app advises me to avoid outdoor activity. According to the US Embassy’s website, stateair.mn, which monitors air pollution in the embassy’s neighborhood, it’s currently 640, which is well beyond the 500 AQI level of the index; the website even says “Beyond Index” and indicates people should stay indoors to reduce exposure. (This really makes me wonder about where Plume gets its information from, but air quality can be quite variable across the city.)

Plume, showing a typical night’s pollution spike

But what do these numbers mean? Just for comparison, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality website, AirNow, anything less than 100 is acceptable. Less than 50 is the best. The index is based on measurements of five major air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. The numbers don’t mean specific amounts of particular pollutants; rather, they indicate the connection between air quality and health, and different levels indicated what measures you should take to protect yourself from the pollution that is present so that you don’t impair your health in the short or long run. It’s especially important for “sensitive groups,” usually children, the elderly, and people with respiratory diseases like asthma.

The most dangerous component of air pollution included in the index is particulate matter. The World Health Organization classifies particulates as a Group 1 carcinogen, causing cancer in humans, and it doesn’t recognize any “safe level” of particulate pollution; all exposure is dangerous. Particulates are tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere that penetrate deep into our lungs and blood stream as we breathe them in. They have natural or human origins, and consist of dust, ash, smoke, smog, and soot. Finer particles, 2.5 micrometers across or less, are the most dangerous, which is why when you start shopping for pollution masks, you want something that says PM 2.5, as I learned before we moved here.

I could write a lot about this; I first learned about particulate pollution when I lived in Cairo, Egypt, and was editing a report for the company that I worked for about levels of air pollution in the city. I was kind of glad I found out about it shortly before I left the city, though I had plenty of time to reflect on what living there had done to my lungs. But I want to get around to why it’s important to think about air quality, and why we shouldn’t take it for granted.

The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people die from air pollution every year, and that nine out of ten people in the world breathe heavily polluted air. Here in Ulaanbaatar right now, it’s ten out of ten. What does that mean for the city’s residents? Higher mortality rates from heart and lung disease, first of all. And, tragically, higher mortality rates among children. According to UNICEF, acute lower respiratory infection, especially pneumonia, is a leading cause of death for children under five. Indeed, my department secretary’s two-year-old son was hospitalized for pneumonia for several weeks at the end of last year, and many other children are as well. Fortunately he recovered.

This pollution is not just an inconvenience, then. Drawing attention to it is not simply “whining.” It’s serious. People become seriously ill from it. People are dying. And while everyone breathes the air, some people have greater exposure than others. My daughter and I live in a well-sealed apartment heated with hot-water radiators, and I cook on an electric hot plate. We have an air filter running 24-7 that I hope does a good job of cleaning the air, though our bedroom usually smells like smoke anyway. We have expensive (by local standards), high-quality pollution masks that we wear when we go outside. Or at least I do; it’s been harder to get Emma to wear the mask, even though she has one in her pocket all the time. So our exposure is limited, compared to many other people. I try to go out and go for a walk every day, to get exercise, get away from my work for a bit, and see more of the city. Every time I do, I see dozens of other people out walking and working, very few of whom are wearing masks.

Extreme air pollution–the view from my bedroom

The main cause of this pollution isn’t vehicles or industry or the coal-fired power plants that fuel the city, or even the open-air incineration of solid waste that is fairly common here. These account for less than 20% of the air pollution. Ironically, unlike many environmental problems in the world, the people who are causing this one are also the people who are suffering from it the most. An article in Newsweek, citing the World Health Organization, points out that 80% of the pollution here is caused by stoves that people living in the informal ger settlements around the city use to heat their homes and cook. (Ger are the Mongolian nomads’ traditional homes though the word simply means “house” in Mongolian).

The city of Ulaanbaatar has been growing rapidly over the last couple of decades, with many of the people flocking to the city settling in the ger districts surrounding it, rather than moving into the high-density apartment blocks that have also been springing up in the center of the city. The ger districts are not connected to the city’s infrastructure, so people use their traditional stoves for heat. This is why the air pollution spikes in the cold weather, especially during the coldest nights of the coldest months. The smoke from the stoves tends to pool in the city, which sits in a river valley; it only occasionally gets pushed out by the wind. The seasonal nature of the pollution is one of the reasons why it has grown and persists. I’ve heard many people say that the government forgets about it during the summer, when the air is clear, and only remembers when it starts to build again in the frigid autumn months.

I’ll be writing more about the ger districts in future posts, and the air pollution, but I wanted to quickly address what is being done about it. There have been many projects focusing on improving air quality in Ulaanbaatar, including providing more fuel-efficient stoves, electric stoves and heating. The World Bank’s Clean Air Project has been focusing on the ger areas, improving insulation and stove efficiency, and expanding access to the city’s electric grid and heating systems. It’s a complex problem requiring multiple approaches, particularly as the city’s population continues to increase.

Ultimately, when I think about the problem of air pollution here in Ulaanbaatar, and in similar places in the world, I’m not really worried about me and Emma. Well, I’m a little worried about Emma. But I’m mainly worried about my department secretary and her son, and the other people who live here for their whole lives, who may not have air filters in their homes or pollution masks, who breath this stuff every day, every winter, every year, except when they have a chance to go out to the countryside for fresh air. That was one of the pieces of advice I got when I first moved here: Get out of the city on weekends, especially during the winter. It’s good advice. But it’s really important to understand that air pollution is not an individual problem, and that talking about air pollution is not complaining. We need to draw attention to this very serious problem, its causes, and its solutions. And we need to do something about it, not for select individuals, but for everyone.

12 thoughts on “Air pollution: It’s not just about you or me

  1. So true! One of my editing clients works on particulate pollution and it’s very bad, even beyond the lungs, as it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. I think about it a lot when I bike in Chicago– all those particulates produced by diesel buses, cars, etc. When I lived on a very active bus route, I would get black grime on my windowsills. So much for the healthfulness of bicycling!

    I understand there are some NGOs working to improve stove performance– has any of that reached Mongolia, or is it mostly concentrated elsewhere?

    Great blog post on an important issue!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! There is a lot going on here to improve stove efficiency and improve the fuel as well (substitutes for raw coal, rubber, plastic, etc.). But the problem got so bad so quickly, it’s going to take a while. I’ll be writing more about this in the future, so check back!

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  2. All this attention to better stoves and better fuel. We’ve done that road for 15 yers now, and not gotten anywhere. Whereas it is so simple. Insulate, air-proof, and use the sun.
    We don’t even have any mention of insulation or energy-performance in the basic national building codes!
    There are three maybe four homes in UB that show what is possible, with small budgets, local materials, local workers. A totallyCertified Passiv House in Mandalgobi is waiting to be copied.

    It’s not impossible, everybody is just looking in the wrong direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the reply! Yes, this is one thing I have been noticing. The World Bank Clean Air Project has been around for a long time (and used a lot of money), and many other organizations are working on the issue. New stoves get developed and distributed or sold, and the problem persists. The sun is plentiful here, and it provides a lot of energy! But there seems to be a focus on either moving people from the ger districts into high density housing in the city, or bringing the existing infrastructure out to the ger districts. Neither of these seem viable or desirable. Re-making the ger districts to maximize use of solar seems to make sense, as well as improving insulation and expanding solar in the city.

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  3. This is so worrisome! I’m sorry to think of you and Emma breathing it for a year, and for all those who have to go on breathing it when you’ve left. Our couple of weeks with hazardous air quality during the immense wildfires this year, when we were warned to keep inside, were really unpleasant – I think even worse than San Diego fire times, but maybe I’m not recalling clearly.

    Whining? I guess your friend on FB wanted you to post kitten videos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Marie! Yeah, this is like the San Diego fires over months. That’s the disturbing part. The pollution levels fluctuate throughout the day and from day to day, but they haven’t fallen to anything like a “safe” level since maybe September. It’s a terrible situation. I knew this before we came here, but seeing people living with these conditions has been eye-opening. (To be fair, my friend on FB wanted fewer posts about air pollution and more about people and Mongolian culture, but I have those, too. They probably just weren’t showing up on their feed.)

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  4. Thanks for this Jericho! It provides à great explanation of the pollution problem there. Also, it’s a timely addition to the articles over the weekend discussing pollution in Asian cities.

    Liked by 1 person

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