The air we breathe

It is easy to take clean, fresh air for granted. If you are fortunate to live in a place where you can go about your everyday life and hassles without having to worry about what exactly you’re breathing, you are, indeed, very fortunate.

Sadly, that’s not the case for many of us.

Sure, we’ve all heard about Beijing’s battle with industrial and car pollution; after all, the city more or less shut down two days last December when air pollution reached dangerous levels.

What is a dangerous level? Well, let’s just say you are aiming for as low of an AQI (air quality index) score as possible . You can read more about the measure here and here but the basic take away message is this: an AQI score lower than 50 is ideal (no health consequences) but the higher the AQI, the higher the possibility for serious health effects. There are various gradient categories and the worst category – “hazardous” – goes into effect when an AQI reaches a score between 300 and 500.

At this point the recommendation is to limit time outside; this guideline applies to the entire population but especially for elderly people, children, and those with health ailments. Why? Well, because a hazardous AQI tells you that the air you’re exposed to is anything but clean and will go directly into your lungs (and here you thought you only had to avoid second hand tobacco smoke).

When Beijing issued its red alerts, the AQI fluctuated somewhere between 300 and 500 (depending on news source) and the smog was apparently visible from space. Fortunately for Beijing, much of the smog is caused by industry and traffic so issuing alerts and mandating that life “as usual” must pause for a day or two improves air quality.

Aside from Beijing, the media is quick to cover other “air pollution” hot spots like New Delhi and other Indian, Iranian, and Pakistani cities (see here and here).

But you know what is desperately missing from this list? Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (and about a dozen cities in eastern Europe and Central Asia that have similar seasonal pollution problems but let’s just stick with pollution in UB for the moment).

The pollution here is seasonal; meaning the air is fresh and clean during the summer and warmer months but once it starts getting cold (and it does get very cold here … UB is the coldest national capital in the world after all), the pollution sets in.

Why is that? Well, it’s cold here, very cold (my phone reported -37C yesterday morning = -35F), and many residents in UB live in Mongolian gers (yurts) that lack electricity and running water. So, naturally, in a country rich in coal resources, ger residents turn to (cheap) coal to heat their homes.

When tens of thousands of gers in UB start firing their coal stoves, pollution becomes unavoidable. And who can really blame people for wanting to stay warm? (And yes, there are many more social issues associated with the “ger district” that houses more than half of UB’s population – yes, more than 50% of residents. But for the moment, let’s focus on air pollution).

What does this mean in terms of our everyday life in winter? Aside from the cold, we deal with pollution – terrible, horrible pollution on a daily basis. Every day of winter and especially on days without wind when the pollution lingers on, longer than ever, never wanting to go away.

Sure, we knew about UB’s air pollution before we arrived; we had done our fair share of reading and preparing about Mongolia after all. But we naively assumed since we had already lived and worked in polluted cities (hello, Sao Paulo), UB would just be a tad bit worse.

It’s worse alright but a whole lot more than we initially thought and the kind of winter pollution we have here is not something you can prepare for.

What are UB’s AQI ratings, you wonder? In winter, we are in “hazardous” AQI virtually every single day.

Actually, that is not true. On more days than not, UB exceeds the hazardous category with AQI scores of 600, 700 …. to over 1000.

Yes, over 1000.

On January 15 – just two weeks ago, I was walking to work in such dense smog, I immediately logged on to the “OpenAQ” site to check UB’s air pollution and could not believe what I was reading – the screen blinking back at me reported the horrendous AQI level of 1600 (this site compares AQI in Beijing, Delhi, and UB – it seems to be down at the moment but is a great resource).

1600! That is way beyond the measurable scale.

And we live here.

In all that smog; the coal leaving its traces not just in the air clearly pungent and what we wake up to every day to as we open our door. But the coal also leaves its traces in our hair, on our skin, and on our clothes so much that our entire coat closet is beginning to smell like a coal stove; I can’t wait for the pollution to subside so I can wash and get the smell off our clothes.

We protect the kids’ little lungs by keeping them indoors, air filters on in all rooms, and pollution masks on (that get mixed reviews, at best, for kids as they are hard to fit) when they are outside the few minutes it takes for them to walk to the bus.

We talk about the smell and pollution every day because we live and see and smell it every day. These are heart-warming discussions with the kids because it makes them wonder why people live in gers when there are apartments that have heat and why people would want to continue living in gers and burn coal even though the pollution is so bad. I love having these types of “aha” conversations but certainly wish they were under other, healthier circumstances.

Fortunately, we are not alone in having these types of conversations and while the media coverage of UB’s air pollution continues to be virtually absent (there are some notable exceptions like here and here and a little interview I participated in with the NYTimes), there is a growing body of researchers and academics starting to focus on UB’s air pollution, its effects (10% of deaths in UB can be attributed to pollution), and possible interventions. Even the US Embassy started monitoring AQI last month.

And, last week, there was an “international expert consultation” conference on the topic in UB so there is promise although the monetary support from Mongolia’s government for this line of research and interventions is, sadly, lacking.

But, air pollution is slowly getting on the radar. Baby steps in the right direction is better than nothing, right? So, do me a favour, and help me spread the word that the media, people, government, experts – heck, everyone, needs to start talking about and dealing with UB’s air pollution. I would hate to experience what an AQI of 2000 feels like.



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