Mongolia is a country located in east Asia, situated between neighboring countries of Chinaand Russia, as well, as well as located close to Kazakhstan although notdirectly bordering it. It has a long history of many nomadic rulership’s, and nowfinds itself finally settled as a democratic nation with a multi-party system.With these big leaps forward has come a large amount of development,particularly in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. As a result of this there is alarge amount of rural to urban migration taking place, which has a significanteffect on the levels of pollution throughout Mongolia, but most prominently inthe capital.
Despite being one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet in terms ofpopulation to landmass ratio, it has managed to accumulate an increasinglydisastrous amount of pollution, due in part to natural changes such as climateand weather conditions. This in turn has a knock-on effect to human activitiesthat produce even more pollution.
The aforementioned phenomenon of rural to urban migration has increased due tochanges of climate affecting the livelihood of many farmers, and as such withthe rearing of cattle and other livestock becoming less and less sustainable,people make their way to the capital city in hopes of finding a better life.
In terms of its PM2.5 levels, Mongolia came in with a yearly average over 2019 of 62 μg/m³,putting it in 3rd place position out of all the most polluted citiesranked worldwide, coming in just behind the highly polluted country of Pakistan, with its ownPM2.5 reading of 65.81 μg/m³, ranking it 2nd worldwide, withBangladesh taking first place with a reading of 83.30 μg/m³.
Mongolia's 2019 reading of 62 μg/m³ is enough to place it into the ‘unhealthy’ ratingsbracket, which requires a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³to be classed as such. This level of air quality would be highly detrimental toits citizens, particularly in the capital which is where most of the pollutionfinds itself coming from. There are only 2 cities registered in Mongolia as awhole, meaning that Ulaanbaatar holds most of the sway over the country’sreadings, with the other city of Tsetserleg not having as much prominence, aswell as having considerably cleaner air with many months falling into the WorldHealth Organizations target goal of 0 to 10 μg/m³ of PM2.5, with a yearlyaverage of just 15.2 μg/m³, putting it into the lower end of the ‘moderately’polluted bracket (12.2 to 35.4 μg/m³).
There are many pertinent issues that are causing the catastrophic decline in Mongolia'sair quality, with ones as diverse as desertification and deforestation, all theway over to human migration (catalyzed by these natural issues) and thesubsequent pollution caused by the mass movement of people from rural andprovincial areas over to the capital city. Mongolia has a long history ofmining taking place across the country, and after the collapse of the SovietUnion occurred, Mongolia's government put forth initiatives to allow thismining to continue with very few regulations.
Side effects of mass mining can lead to heightened levels of fine particulate matter in theair, particularly from poorly maintained mining sites (as is also common withconstruction areas that lack proper maintenance) with particles such as silicadust along with finely ground soil and gravel dust making their way into theatmosphere. Although this is not the most prominent cause of pollution,nevertheless all these issues do add up and compound each other further, givingrise to the disastrous levels of PM2.5 seen in the capital city at certaintimes of the year, such as 194.6 μg/m³ being recorded in January 2019 inUlaanbaatar.
Other contributors to Mongolia's pollution levels would include desertification,brought on largely by human activities such as the overgrazing of fertilelands, as well as burning practices. These all contribute to the erosion ofland, with rivers drying up and many areas being subject to drought conditionsfrom climate change. As well as consistently driving people out of these rural areasand towards the capital, the climate change would have an effect on the amount offine particulate dust particles being blown into the atmosphere, adding to thelevels of both PM2.5 and PM10.
Addressing the main cause of pollution in Mongolia, it would be that of burning materialsto heat people’s homes, or to use more local terms, a ‘Ger’, which is atraditional Mongolian dwelling consisting of a wooden structure surrounded byfelt and other insulating materials. At the center place of these dwellings arethe stoves, or fireplaces, which are the most prominent causes of pollution thataffect the whole country.
In the winter months when the temperature can drop to as low as -40 degrees Celsius, stayingwarm is paramount to survival in such harsh conditions. Large amounts of raw(unwashed and unprocessed) coal are burnt in these fireplaces, along with othermaterials such as wood and even dried dung or manure. The smoke and haze givenoff by the mass burning of these items coalesces in the sky, causing the levelsof PM2.5 and PM10 to skyrocket. The types of pollutants emitted from thesesources will be discussed in short, and in closing another contributor tooverall pollution levels is vehicular emissions. The many trucks, cars andother transportation vehicles populating the road would run on fossil fuelssuch as diesel, which can cause spikes in pollution in areas of high traffic.All of these factors combined, with home fuel burning being at the center, areresponsible for Mongolia's extremely high PM2.5 levels as well as its 3rdplace ranking worldwide out of all the most polluted cities.
Mongolia has a number of pollutants in the air from its various sources, as mentioned theburning of organic matter and fossil fuels such as coal being the most salient.Other pollutants in the air would include those found from vehicles, such asnitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Nitrogendioxide is of particular importance due to how much of it is released into theatmosphere directly from cars and trucks. It is known as both a primary andsecondary pollutant, because of its ability to form directly from a singularsource such as a fire, or the combustion of fuel in a vehicle’s engine. It canalso form later on as a secondary pollutant in the atmosphere, where variousnitrogen oxides (NOx) can undergo chemical reactions to form nitrogen dioxide.
Other pollutants would be ones that arise from the burning of both living and deadorganic matter, such as wood that finds its way into the fireplaces in homesnationwide. Chemicals and compounds as well as particulate matter released fromthis would include ones such as carbon monoxide (CO), black carbon, volatileorganic compounds (VOC’s), formaldehyde, benzene as well as polynucleararomatic hydrocarbons, a chemical compound that has highly carcinogenicproperties, with clear links to cancer of the skin, liver, bladder and lungshaving been established already for many years.
All of the aforementioned materials would have highly negative effects on the healthy ofthose respiring them, both long and short term.
With readings of PM2.5 ranging from the previously mentioned 194.6 μg/m³ to 139.1 μg/m³ andeven 122.4 μg/m³ as shown in December 2019, the health issues associated withbreathing polluted air often have higher incidences of occurring with directcorrelation to the pollution levels. As such, many of the health issues thatwill be discussed have higher chances of being inflicted upon individuals basedon the level of pollution they are exposed to.
Incidences of cancer, particularly lung cancers, can rise rapidly when exposed to particulatematters such as soot and black carbon. Due to the extremely small size ofPM2.5, it can penetrate deep into the lung tissue and cross over via the bloodbarrier, making its way into the circulatory system and causing a whole host ofissues, due to dangerous materials being in the bloodstream.
These include damage to blood vessels, instances of ischemic heart disease (a conditioncaused when a particular organ such as the heart fails to receive adequateoxygen levels required to support full tissue health). Strokes are very realpossibilities as well, even amongst demographics of the population that wouldnot typically suffer from them, such as the young and healthy.
Larger sized particles of PM10 can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and mouth aswell as causing chest infections to occur, with young children being highlyvulnerable to this and subject to extended periods of coughing fits, eitherbrought on by conditions such as bronchitis or from long term exposure to thesefine particles. In regards to the smaller sized PM2.5 being in the bloodstream, damage can also occur to both the renal and hepatic systems (kidneysand liver), along with reproductive health being affected. Permanent changes tothe nervous system may take place, with side affects such as headaches andchronic fatigue being possible.
For expecting mothers and young children the health issues are the most prominent. Pregnantmothers exposed to the higher months level of pollution can have increasedchances of miscarriage or stillbirth occurring, as well as premature birth anda low birth weight in the newborn babies. For young children that are afflictedby respiratory ailments such as pneumonia or bronchitis, permanent lung damagemay occur which could lead to stunting of physical growth, as well as a numberof cognitive defects.
As it stands, exposure to these extremely high levels of pollution carry with them a severenumber of detrimental effects. Education is tantamount in reducing not only thelevels of pollution in Mongolia but also the levels of exposure that people mayhave to endure. For those that want to stay up to date on pollution levelsoccurring across the country, air quality maps as available on the IQAirwebsite can keep people updated on current levels of pollution, as well as thisinformation being available on the AirVisual app. For those that have no choicebut to go about in areas of high pollution, be it in Mongolia or worldwide, high quality particle filteringmasks, as available on site, can go a long way in reducing the harmfuleffects of exposure to high levels of haze and pollution.
Observing the data taken from the last few years, it is apparent that the pollution levelsare staying roughly the same, with a few minor discrepancies between readingsbut staying mostly at the same number. Due to the lack of readings in othercities outside of Ulaanbaatar, it is hard to extrapolate the real pollutionlevels in rural Mongolia, which undoubtably would be far cleaner than that ofthe capital cities.
To look at the quality of air in the second city now added to Mongolia's registry, tsetserleghad many months that fell into the World Health Organizations (WHO) targetbracket of 0 to 10 μg/m³ of PM2.5, with numbers as low as 3.2 μg/m³ coming upin June. With this in mind and considering how much uninhabited areas there areacross the steppes of Mongolia, large portions of the country would all fallwell under the WHO’s target goal, with a great quality of air, with highelevations and strong winds assisting in that. However, since the capital cityis largely being used to determine the countries pollution levels as a whole,as previously mentioned the pollution is not improving.
In 2017, Mongolia (and thus Ulaanbaatar, being its only city with readings) came in witha PM2.5 number of 66.5 μg/m³, also in the ‘unhealthy’ bracket range. This wasfollowed in 2018 with a slightly improved reading of 58.5 μg/m³, showing signsthat the air quality may have seen signs of becoming cleaner. This was however putto rest with the entry of 2019’s average, with a reading of 62 μg/m³ onceagain, a slight increase from the year prior to it but an increase nonetheless.
This is indicative that if Mongolia is to improve the quality of its air, all the aboveissues happening in Ulaanbaatar need to be addressed very quickly, before thedisastrous levels of air quality affect the health of a whole generation, withmany of Mongolia's rural inhabitants migrating into the city and thus exposingthemselves to these highly elevated pollution levels.