World’s Worst Air Has Mongolians Seeing Red, Planning Action

  • Dec. 26 action set amid smog five times worse than Beijing
  • Military opens its hospital as city medical care at capacity

World’s Worst Air Has Mongolians Seeing Red

If you think air pollution in China has been bad, just look at Mongolia.

Levels of particulate matter in the air have risen to almost 80 times the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organization -- and five times worse than Beijing during the past week’s bout with the worst smog of the year.

Mongolian power plants working overtime during the frigid winter belch plumes of soot into the atmosphere, while acrid smoke from coal fires shrouds the shantytowns of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in a brown fog. Angry residents planned a protest, organized on social media, on Dec. 26.

The level of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, in the air as measured hourly peaked at 1,985 micrograms a cubic meter on Dec. 16 in the capital’s Bayankhoshuu district, according to data posted by government website agaar.mn. The daily average settled at 1,071 micrograms that day.

The World Health Organization recommends PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25 micrograms over 24 hours.

In Beijing, the year’s worst bout of noxious smog prompted officials to issue the year’s first red alert and order 1,200 factories to close or cut output. Earlier this week, PM2.5 levels exceeded 400 in the capital, and Chinese officials on Tuesday canceled 351 flight departures because of limited visibility. The highest daily average in the past week, on Wednesday, registered 378. Worse, the PM2.5 reading in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter earlier this week, according to the China National Environment Monitoring Center.

Mongolia’s contracting economic growth and a widening budget gap have left authorities few resources to fight the dangerous smog.

Tariff Eliminated

After first cutting the nighttime electricity tariff by 50 percent to encourage residents to heat their homes with electric heaters instead of raw coal or other flammable material that is often toxic, Prime Minister Erdenebat Jargaltulga announced Friday that the tariff would eliminated entirely as of Jan. 1. Longer term, he proposed building apartments to replace makeshift housing using a loan from China, doing more to encourage electric heating, and reducing poverty to slow migration to the capital, according to a government statement.

The conversion of ger districts, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes including tents, into apartment complexes has so far been stymied by an economic crisis that has pushed the government to seek economic lifelines from partners including the International Monetary Fund and China.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu announced that a 50-bed wing of Ulaanbaatar’s military hospital will open up for children with pneumonia, as city hospitals were filled to capacity, according to a statement on the government’s website.

Public Anger

Public anger over the government’s handling of pollution has been growing on social media, where residents share pictures of the smog, encourage methods of protection and call on the government to do more to protect citizens. The latest trend Friday had Mongolians changing their profile pictures on Facebook to show themselves wearing air pollution masks.

The air pollution protest next week was being organized for Sukhbaatar Square, the capital’s central plaza. A crowdfunding campaign to purchase 100 air purifiers for hospitals and schools raised more than $1,400 in five days.

“The hospital I visited today did not have any air purifiers, even though 40 mothers were scattered along a narrow corridor, each with a sick baby in their arms,” Onon Bayasgalan, an environmentalist who organized the crowdfunding campaign, said Thursday. “They sleep on fold out cots in the corridors, as the hospital rooms are full of pneumonia cases.’’

Impending Crisis

Earlier this month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned of an impending crisis if the smoke levels are not reduced, calling children under 5 and those still in the womb the most vulnerable.

“Children are projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life," the UNICEF report said, warning of the rising economic costs of these diseases unless "major new measures" are urgently enacted. "The alarming levels of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar during the long winter cannot be neglected any longer, as their short- and long-term negative health impact has been demonstrated, especially for children.’’

A 2013 study by Canada’s Simon Fraser University concluded that 10 percent of deaths in Ulaanbaatar were related to complications from air pollution.

“Most of my colleagues’ children are hospitalized or at home struggling with respiratory problems,’’ Lhagva Erdene, news director at Mongol TV station, said in an e-mail. “We feel helpless and frustrated for the inaction of our government.’’

Neither the ministers for foreign affairs nor the environment replied to requests for comment.

Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal, who heads the Business Council of Mongolia in the capital, said he and his family try to stay indoors as much as possible and spend weekends outside the city.

“There have been shifting policies, and that is frustrating,” he said. “There needs to be consistent policy and stability so businesses can find solutions to this problem.’’

Friday’s PM2.5 levels in northern Ulaanbaatar peaked at 932 at noon, while the monthly average for December so far was 518. Meanwhile in Beijing, where the government lifted its pollution warning Thursday, skies were clear and air quality improved.

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