What living in life-threatening air pollution feels like

Sun through the pollution

I’ve been wanting to write about what the air pollution here in Ulaanbaatar feels like for a while now. My experience of it has been sheltered compared to most people who live in the city. But it does affect me, and it affects how I live here, so it has made me pay more attention to not only the medical facts of the impact of air pollution on our bodies (and our minds), but just the day-to-day coexistence with it. This is part of the lives of everyone in Ulaanbaatar and other cities around the world with similar conditions. So this post is going to be about what it feels like to live here during the pollution season. Experiencing this first-hand has been important for me for several reasons, and it has made me realize how crucial it is to protect air quality, which is something that seems more and more difficult to do as industry fights back against environmental regulation around the world.

A few of things to mention, first:

1) The air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is seasonal. If you come here in the summer, which is when we arrived, the air seems clear and fresh. But as autumn brings more and more cold weather (the first night it hit freezing here last fall was September 6), people start having to heat their homes. I’ve written about this in a couple of other posts (here and here), but many homes in Ulaanbaatar are not hooked up to the city’s centralized heating system. Instead, they are heated by coal-burning stoves, in which people burn whatever they can get their hands on as winter progresses, including old tires, plastic, and trash. This causes about 80% of the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. So if you’re only here in the summer, you may not realize what it’s like the rest of the year.

Our view on August 17

2) As I mentioned, my exposure to the pollution has been limited compared to most people living here. I live close to where I work, so I don’t have a long commute outdoors. In my home, I have an air filter that I run 24/7 and the windows and doors are well-sealed. I live in a modern apartment that is heated by hot water. So my direct daily exposure is limited to when I go outside, and I wear a pollution mask whenever I do, which most people here don’t. So, as far as exposure goes, I’m lucky. Emma has a longer commute, so she is out there more, but she’s in a passenger car with somewhat filtered air. Her school is well-sealed and has air filters as well, though, so her exposure is limited, too. So, as you read this, imagine what it is like for people who don’t have these protective measures.

3) The air quality fluctuates a lot more than I thought it would. I thought once it got bad, it would stay bad until spring. But of course not. When the wind blows through the valley that the city is in, the pollution gets pushed out. And when there is a run of warmer weather, the air also seems to get clearer. Last week, the temperatures were much warmer than they had been, as high as 20°F during the day, and -10°F at night (one night it was even -1°F!). Over the weekend, we had some decent air quality, with the AQI falling below 100 (still classified as “high pollution” by Plume, my air pollution app). But the colder it gets, the worse the air quality gets, so after a few nights of much colder weather, we’re back to “excessive” and “extreme” pollution today.

Plume showing the changes in air quality in a single day, from a high of 394 to a low of 118

I first noticed the air pollution in late September. Before that, I had seen the plumes rising from Power Plant #3, which we can see in the distance from our apartment. It’s a coal-fired power station in the southwestern part of the city. I also noticed the smell of smoke in the air when I went outside, though it wasn’t very strong yet. This was about the time Emma brought home an order form for pollution masks from her school. We had brought some with us, but these were a different brand, so we thought we would try them out. (They turned out to be better than the ones we brought.) Nothing says back to school like getting your pollution mask order form!

I started noticing the pollution on a regular basis after the first week in October. I could smell the smoke in our apartment now, especially in the middle of the night. The first time I smelled it, I had a typical southern Californian’s reaction: Wildfire! Then I remembered where I was, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a fire in our building, and not coming in from the outside. This made for several sleep-reduced nights. The view from our apartment became increasingly hazy, too.

On October 10, I downloaded Plume, an air quality monitoring app I’d read about. The US Embassy also has an air quality monitoring site, and I wanted a comparison, because we lived on the other side of the city from the embassy. I’m not sure what Plume’s data sources are in Ulaanbaatar, but it often has different numbers from the embassy’s website. Since my research interests include measurement and indexes (like the Air Quality Index), I was interested in following different sources about this, too. I took a screenshot of my first reading of Plume, October 10 at 8:20 pm, and the AQI was 192, “Excessive Pollution.” According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency air quality guide used by the US Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, this is at the upper end of the “Unhealthy range,” with “Increased aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; increased respiratory effects in general population.”

This shocked me at the time, because the air quality didn’t seem that bad yet. Emma and I hadn’t started wearing our pollution masks, although now it seemed like we should. But yes, I could certainly see the pollution; I had even taken pictures of it that morning. The haze was visible, and it reminded me of the way Los Angeles was in the 1990s; I remember driving into LA from the east, seeing the brown haze, and thinking, I don’t want to breathe that stuff! And here I was, living in it again.

We went out of town that weekend, to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and I spent my first night sleeping in a ger. The smell of the stove in the ger, after it had been lit, smelled familiar—like the smoke smell I had woken up to a couple of times in Ulaanbaatar. Of course. But it was also a bit different. Here, it was wood and dried animal dung smoke, but in UB, the smoke had had a more acrid tinge to it. The smoke of burning coal, and other things, too. In Terelj, the air was otherwise clean and fresh. Back in Ulaanbaatar, the first thing I noticed was the polluted air. The evening we got back, I took another picture of it.

The stove in our tourist ger

Shortly after that, on October 25, it snowed for the third or fourth time this winter. It was striking this time because it noticeably cleared the air. It smelled fresh again outside, and I could see so much more clearly from our balcony that evening. According to Plume, that AQI was back down below 100, “high pollution,” for a change. I thought, well, as long as it snows every once in a while, that will keep the pollution down. I don’t think it snowed again after that.

After the snow

I remember really noticing the pollution much more in November, as the temperatures dropped down to the single digits Fahrenheit at night, and the 20s during the day. This was when I started being woken up in the middle of the night on a regular basis, not just every once in a while. The smell would get so strong in our bedroom that it would rouse me. I was going to go buy an air filter for our apartment, but Professor Won, the university’s vice president, told me he would give us his air filter when he returned to Korea in early December. I decided to wait and save the expense. But now there was no question about how bad the pollution here really was, and there was no question about wearing our masks outside. The masks have the added bonus of keeping our faces warm; for that reason alone, I would wear them. But they do keep a lot of the bad stuff out of our lungs (I hope), and that is more important.

Wearing our masks

Something that has surprised me, as I mentioned, is how much the air pollution fluctuates, not only from week to week and day today, but throughout each day. Some days are clearly worse than others, depending on whether it’s been windy or not, or how cold it had been. Often, the pollution is at its worst in the morning, when Emma is leaving the house to go to school, and it clears up a bit by the late afternoon, when she is coming home. I can see the changes in air quality, both by looking outside (especially into the distance), and by looking at monitoring apps and websites. But I can also smell and feel the changes, from one part of the day to the next. When I walk her out to the taxi in the morning, I usually choke not on the cold air, but on the smoke. But by the afternoon, the air has often cleared to the point where you can’t really smell the smoke.

Generally, I try not to go outside in the mornings, but on weekends we tend to go out early in the day because the traffic starts to get terrible by noon, so if we are going downtown the bus ride will be much shorter the earlier we go. Sometimes it looks so bad out there that we just stay home. I’ve put off trips to the supermarket because it looks too murky outside. But then it clears up, and we decide to go for a walk or to go across the street to Tenger Plaza to buy food. When we first moved here, we joked that during the winter we would never go outside (in fact, we joked that we would never leave the bathroom, which has a heated floor). What we were worried about then was the cold (which, for two people from San Diego, seemed extreme). Now, though, it’s not the cold that keeps us inside. That’s no big deal compared to the billowing clouds of smoke we sometimes see. Sometimes it seems smart to just stay home.

My body is also reacting to the air pollution. I often have a sore throat here, and sometimes I have felt like I am getting sick, only to have it go away again. I did have a bad cold towards the end of fall semester, but even when I am not sick, I clear my throat a lot, and I cough more than I did in San Diego. My eyes sting, itch, and tear up. And that’s indoors. Some days, I just feel bad, while other days I feel almost OK. Often, after I’ve been outside, I feel like I am having trouble breathing properly. I can’t imagine what it would be like without our air filter and two humidifiers, which are also running around the clock.

I also can’t imagine how it would be to live in the ger districts and have a stove as my only source of heat every day and night. If I am experiencing some physical symptoms with my limited exposure, what must it be like to live in the thick of the smoke, without filters for protection? This is why I can’t feel bad about our experience here. Because so many people have it so much worse. I see this when I am out and about in the city. So many people are coughing, sneezing, and clearing their throats. So many people seem sick. People here tend to spit whatever they cough up onto the sidewalks, so the sidewalks are dotted with frozen lugies now. Towards the end of last semester, nearly all of my students were coughing, and many of them were missing class because they were sick. To some extent, this is “normal” in the winter, which is cold season throughout the world. But the pervasiveness of respiratory problems here is hard to miss. And it’s hard to dismiss.

Reading about the air pollution here, I know what toll it is having on people’s health. But having the first-hand experience of it, even in a limited way, makes me realize how important it is not to take clean air for granted. People don’t have a choice about breathing. And many people don’t have a choice about where they live. The people who have been moving to Ulaanbaatar in droves are doing so because they have lost their livelihoods and because this is the best chance they have for finding another one. Unfortunately, it is also shortening their lives, as they become exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

When I taught about environmental racism and environmental justice when I lived in California, so many of the cases I showed my students had to do with polluting industries setting up shop in areas where they could get away with it, neighborhoods inhabited by the poor and people of color, the disenfranchised who lack the clout to prevent these sources of pollution from invading their communities. The air pollution here in Ulaanbaatar is different. Some is caused by “the usual suspects”: vehicles and industry and waste incineration. Some of it is even “natural,” dust blowing in from the desert and wafting up from dirt roads and vacant lots in the city. But most of it is caused by people doing what they need to do to stay warm during bitterly cold months. It’s hard to blame them for that.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, so check back if you’re interested. I am looking at what the government has been doing (and not doing) to address air pollution, as well as international organizations, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and also individuals. As I learn more, I will post more.

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