In the world’s coldest capital, many burn coal and plastic just to survive temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius – but warmth comes at a price: deadly pollution makes Ulan Bator’s air too toxic for young people to breathe, leaving them little choice but to evacuate to the countryside.
This exodus from Mongolia’s capital city is a stark warning of the future for urban areas in many parts of Asia, where scenes of citizens in anti-pollution masks against a backdrop of brown skies are the norm, not the exception.
Ulan Bator is one of the most polluted cities on Earth, alongside New Delhi in India, Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, Kabul in Afghanistan, and Beijing. It regularly exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations for air quality even as experts warn of consequences including stunted development, illness, and in some cases death.
Erdene-Bat Naranchimeg watched helplessly as her daughter Amina battled illness virtually from birth, her immune system compromised by the air in Ulan Bator.
“We would constantly be in and out of the hospital,” Naranchimeg said, adding that Amina contracted pneumonia twice at the age of two, requiring several rounds of antibiotics.
This is not a unique case in a city where winter temperatures plunge towards uninhabitable, particularly in the districts rural workers moved to in search of a better life.
Here, row upon row of the traditional tents – known as gers – are warmed by coal, or any other flammable material available. The resulting black smoke shoots out in plumes, blanketing surrounding areas in a film of smog that makes visibility so poor, it can be hard to see even a few metres ahead.
The situation was so bad that doctors told Naranchimeg the only solution was to send her little girl to the clean air of the countryside.
Now aged five, Amina is thriving. She lives with her grandparents in Bornuur Sum, a village 135 kilometres away from the capital.
“She hasn’t been sick since she started living there,” said Naranchimeg. “It was very difficult in the first few months,” she said. “We used to cry when we talked on the phone.”
But like many parents in Ulan Bator, she felt the move was the only way to protect her child. The levels of PM2.5 – tiny and harmful particles that penetrate the lungs and cause severe health damage – in Ulan Bator reached 3,320 in January, 133 times what the WHO considers safe. In comparison, according to a Ministry of Ecology and Environment survey of 337 cities on the mainland, the average PM2.5 reading for China was 61 for January and February.
The effects of breathing in PM2.5 are bad for adults but young people are more at risk, in part because they breathe faster, taking in more air and pollutants.
As they are smaller, children are also closer to the ground, where pollutants concentrate, and their still-developing lungs, brains, and other key organs are more vulnerable to damage. Effects to prolonged exposure range from persistent infections and asthma, to slowed lung and brain development.
Respiratory problems are the most obvious effect of pollution, but research suggests it can also put young people at risk for diabetes and heart disease later in life. And the WHO links it to leukaemia and behavioural disorders.
The persistent smog in Ulan Bator has caused tensions in the city, with those living in wealthier areas blaming the ger residents for the pollution and even calling for the tent districts to be cleared. But the ger residents say coal is all they can afford.
“People come to the capital because they need sustainable income,” said Dorjdagva Adiyasuren, a 54-year-old mother of six.
“It’s not their fault,” she added.
For Naranchimeg, the problems are serious enough to make her consider whether she wants more children. “Now, I am terribly afraid of to give birth again. It is risky to carry a child and what will happen to them after being born in this amount of pollution?”