Kids suffer most in one of Earth’s most polluted cities

National Geographic || BETH GARDINER || March 26, 2019

In winter, coal stoves and power plants choke Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, with smoke—and lung disease.

ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIACoal is everywhere in Mongolia’s frigid capital. It sits beneath the towering smokestacks of power plants in piles as big as football fields. Drivers haul it through town in the open beds of pickup trucks. Vendors stack yellow bags of the stuff along roadsides, and jagged pieces spill from metal buckets in the round felt yurts where the poorest families burn it to keep out the bitter cold.

The smoke in Ulaanbaatar is at times so thick that people and buildings are visible only in outline. Its smell is acrid and inescapable. The sooty air stings throats and wafts into the gleaming modern office buildings in the center of town and into the blocky, Soviet-style apartment towers that sprawl toward the mountains on the city’s edges. On bad days, handheld pollution monitors max out, as readings soar dozens of times beyond recommended limits. Levels of the tiniest and most dangerous airborne particles, known as PM-2.5, once hit 133 times the World Health Organization’s suggested maximum.

Mongolia’s pollution problem is a more severe version of one playing out around the world. From the United States and Germany to India and China, air pollution cuts short an estimated 7 million lives globally every year. Coal is one of the major causes of dirty air—and of climate change.

In Mongolia, at least for now, coal is essential to surviving the brutal winters. But the toll it takes is steep.

“I no longer know what a healthy lung sounds like”

This winter authorities closed the capital’s schools for two full months, from mid-December to mid-February, in a desperate attempt to shield children from the toxic air. It’s unclear how effective that measure is. Hospitals are stretched far beyond capacity, as pneumonia cases, particularly among the youngest, spike every winter.

“I no longer know what a healthy lung sounds like,” says Ganjargal Demberel, a doctor who makes house calls in a neighborhood of yurts—known in Mongolia as gers—tucked into the jagged brown hills in the city’s northeastern corner. “Everybody has bronchitis or some other problem, especially during winter.”

One of Dr. Ganjargal’s patients is Gal-Erdene Sumiya, a shaggy-haired seven-month-old who, when I meet him, is just getting over pneumonia. “I can’t bring him outside to get any air, because it’s so polluted,” says his mother, Selengesaikhan Oyundelger. She keeps her older children inside almost all the time too.

A patterned pink cloth covers the walls of the family’s ger, and the wooden poles that support its round roof are brightly painted, creating a living space that’s cozy and intimate. A small stove keeps it warm as Selengesaikhan rolls out dough for mutton dumplings. She says the other mothers she met when her son was hospitalized talked about pollution incessantly: “They were saying they had no confidence in the future of this country.”

Ger districts like hers, a mix of the traditional round tents and simple wood or brick houses, are home mostly to migrants from the countryside, former herders who have come to the capital seeking jobs and education. Because they lack the infrastructure available to apartment dwellers—reliable electricity and district heating systems, as well as water and sanitation—residents shovel coal into small stoves for warmth. A single family easily burns two tons or more each winter.

Smoke floats from the metal chimneys that poke up from every tent and house, and the ger districts are among the city’s most polluted. But bigger polluters darken Ulaanbaatar’s air as well. Huge black plumes waft from power plants, and smoke drifts too from the chimneys of apartment buildings, supermarkets, and schools where maintenance men heap coal into big boilers.