Mongolia is a country located in east Asia, situated between neighboring countries of China and Russia, as well, as well as located close to Kazakhstan although not directly bordering it. It has a long history of many nomadic rulership’s, and now finds 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 a large amount of rural to urban migration taking place, which has a significant effect on the levels of pollution throughout Mongolia, but most prominently in the capital.
Despite being one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet in terms of population to landmass ratio, it has managed to accumulate an increasingly disastrous amount of pollution, due in part to natural changes such as climate and weather conditions. This in turn has a knock-on effect to human activities that produce even more pollution.
The aforementioned phenomenon of rural to urban migration has increased due to changes of climate affecting the livelihood of many farmers, and as such with the 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 cities ranked worldwide, coming in just behind the highly polluted country of Pakistan, with its own PM2.5 reading of 65.81 μg/m³, ranking it 2nd worldwide, with Bangladesh 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’ ratings bracket, which requires a PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 55.5 to 150.4 μg/m³ to be classed as such. This level of air quality would be highly detrimental to its citizens, particularly in the capital which is where most of the pollution finds itself coming from. There are only 2 cities registered in Mongolia as a whole, meaning that Ulaanbaatar holds most of the sway over the country’s readings, with the other city of Tsetserleg not having as much prominence, as well as having considerably cleaner air with many months falling into the World Health Organizations target goal of 0 to 10 μg/m³ of PM2.5, with a yearly average 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's air quality, with ones as diverse as desertification and deforestation, all the way over to human migration (catalyzed by these natural issues) and the subsequent pollution caused by the mass movement of people from rural and provincial areas over to the capital city. Mongolia has a long history of mining taking place across the country, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred, Mongolia's government put forth initiatives to allow this mining to continue with very few regulations.
Side effects of mass mining can lead to heightened levels of fine particulate matter in the air, particularly from poorly maintained mining sites (as is also common with construction areas that lack proper maintenance) with particles such as silica dust along with finely ground soil and gravel dust making their way into the atmosphere. Although this is not the most prominent cause of pollution, nevertheless all these issues do add up and compound each other further, giving rise to the disastrous levels of PM2.5 seen in the capital city at certain times of the year, such as 194.6 μg/m³ being recorded in January 2019 in Ulaanbaatar.
Other contributors to Mongolia's pollution levels would include desertification, brought on largely by human activities such as the overgrazing of fertile lands, as well as burning practices. These all contribute to the erosion of land, with rivers drying up and many areas being subject to drought conditions from climate change. As well as consistently driving people out of these rural areas and towards the capital, the climate change would have an effect on the amount of fine particulate dust particles being blown into the atmosphere, adding to the levels of both PM2.5 and PM10.
Addressing the main cause of pollution in Mongolia, it would be that of burning materials to heat people’s homes, or to use more local terms, a ‘Ger’, which is a traditional Mongolian dwelling consisting of a wooden structure surrounded by felt and other insulating materials. At the center place of these dwellings are the stoves, or fireplaces, which are the most prominent causes of pollution that affect the whole country.
In the winter months when the temperature can drop to as low as -40 degrees Celsius, staying warm is paramount to survival in such harsh conditions. Large amounts of raw (unwashed and unprocessed) coal are burnt in these fireplaces, along with other materials such as wood and even dried dung or manure. The smoke and haze given off by the mass burning of these items coalesces in the sky, causing the levels of PM2.5 and PM10 to skyrocket. The types of pollutants emitted from these sources will be discussed in short, and in closing another contributor to overall pollution levels is vehicular emissions. The many trucks, cars and other transportation vehicles populating the road would run on fossil fuels such 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, are responsible for Mongolia's extremely high PM2.5 levels as well as its 3rd place ranking worldwide out of all the most polluted cities.
Mongolia has a number of pollutants in the air from its various sources, as mentioned the burning 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 as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Nitrogen dioxide is of particular importance due to how much of it is released into the atmosphere directly from cars and trucks. It is known as both a primary and secondary pollutant, because of its ability to form directly from a singular source such as a fire, or the combustion of fuel in a vehicle’s engine. It can also form later on as a secondary pollutant in the atmosphere, where various nitrogen oxides (NOx) can undergo chemical reactions to form nitrogen dioxide.
Other pollutants would be ones that arise from the burning of both living and dead organic matter, such as wood that finds its way into the fireplaces in homes nationwide. Chemicals and compounds as well as particulate matter released from this would include ones such as carbon monoxide (CO), black carbon, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), formaldehyde, benzene as well as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, a chemical compound that has highly carcinogenic properties, with clear links to cancer of the skin, liver, bladder and lungs having been established already for many years.
All of the aforementioned materials would have highly negative effects on the healthy of those 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 and even 122.4 μg/m³ as shown in December 2019, the health issues associated with breathing polluted air often have higher incidences of occurring with direct correlation to the pollution levels. As such, many of the health issues that will be discussed have higher chances of being inflicted upon individuals based on the level of pollution they are exposed to.
Incidences of cancer, particularly lung cancers, can rise rapidly when exposed to particulate matters such as soot and black carbon. Due to the extremely small size of PM2.5, it can penetrate deep into the lung tissue and cross over via the blood barrier, making its way into the circulatory system and causing a whole host of issues, due to dangerous materials being in the bloodstream.
These include damage to blood vessels, instances of ischemic heart disease (a condition caused when a particular organ such as the heart fails to receive adequate oxygen levels required to support full tissue health). Strokes are very real possibilities as well, even amongst demographics of the population that would not 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 as well as causing chest infections to occur, with young children being highly vulnerable to this and subject to extended periods of coughing fits, either brought on by conditions such as bronchitis or from long term exposure to these fine particles. In regards to the smaller sized PM2.5 being in the blood stream, damage can also occur to both the renal and hepatic systems (kidneys and liver), along with reproductive health being affected. Permanent changes to the nervous system may take place, with side affects such as headaches and chronic fatigue being possible.
For expecting mothers and young children the health issues are the most prominent. Pregnant mothers exposed to the higher months level of pollution can have increased chances of miscarriage or stillbirth occurring, as well as premature birth and a low birth weight in the newborn babies. For young children that are afflicted by respiratory ailments such as pneumonia or bronchitis, permanent lung damage may occur which could lead to stunting of physical growth, as well as a number of cognitive defects.
As it stands, exposure to these extremely high levels of pollution carry with them a severe number of detrimental effects. Education is tantamount in reducing not only the levels of pollution in Mongolia but also the levels of exposure that people may have to endure. For those that want to stay up to date on pollution levels occurring across the country, air quality maps as available on the IQAir website can keep people updated on current levels of pollution, as well as this information being available on the AirVisual app. For those that have no choice but to go about in areas of high pollution, be it in Mongolia or worldwide, high quality particle filtering masks, as available on site, can go a long way in reducing the harmful effects of exposure to high levels of haze and pollution.
Observing the data taken from the last few years, it is apparent that the pollution levels are staying roughly the same, with a few minor discrepancies between readings but staying mostly at the same number. Due to the lack of readings in other cities outside of Ulaanbaatar, it is hard to extrapolate the real pollution levels in rural Mongolia, which undoubtably would be far cleaner than that of the capital cities.
To look at the quality of air in the second city now added to Mongolia's registry, tsetserleg had many months that fell into the World Health Organizations (WHO) target bracket of 0 to 10 μg/m³ of PM2.5, with numbers as low as 3.2 μg/m³ coming up in June. With this in mind and considering how much uninhabited areas there are across the steppes of Mongolia, large portions of the country would all fall well under the WHO’s target goal, with a great quality of air, with high elevations and strong winds assisting in that. However, since the capital city is 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 with a PM2.5 number of 66.5 μg/m³, also in the ‘unhealthy’ bracket range. This was followed in 2018 with a slightly improved reading of 58.5 μg/m³, showing signs that the air quality may have seen signs of becoming cleaner. This was however put to rest with the entry of 2019’s average, with a reading of 62 μg/m³ once again, 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 above issues happening in Ulaanbaatar need to be addressed very quickly, before the disastrous levels of air quality affect the health of a whole generation, with many of Mongolia's rural inhabitants migrating into the city and thus exposing themselves to these highly elevated pollution levels.
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