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Under a shroud of smog

Courtesy of Lucas Beard

A man walks through the thick blanket of smog that envelopes Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, during the winter. Because coal is used as a heating source, the city’s air quality suffers.

Editor’s note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.

The entire city heaves with sickly coughing.

Raspy breaths interrupt commutes as Ulaanbaatar residents wheeze through smoke-filled streets. Their hazy shapes emerge from murky darkness only to fade away into the smog.

I endeavor to limit my exposure as much as possible while I scamper between indoor spaces. I feel like a coward shrinking away from the nebulous danger floating in the air. Coal is dirty, and in no other place is this more evident than Mongolia’s capital city.

As the temperature has fallen, coal usage has risen. An affordable and abundant source of heat, coal is a necessary evil for survival in Mongolia. Most coal is burned to heat the thin-walled tents the city’s recent immigrants use as housing.

By jamming crude hunks of bituminous coal into steel stoves, ger residents can insulate themselves against the bitter Siberian drafts. The coal is sold in large burlap sacks on the street corners by vendors calling out daily rates.

While coal prices are usually affordable, I’ve heard stories of people burning anything, including plastic bottles, to keep warm when the coal supplies have run low. Additional pollution comes from the large, Soviet-era power plants in the middle of Ulaanbaatar. The elevated cooling towers pour smoke and soot down over the city.

When I first came to the city, the hourglass-shaped towers reminded me of the fictional nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons” television show. This image is in stark contrast with the unadulterated beauty of the Mongolian countryside.

As the second most polluted city on the planet, Ulaanbaatar pays the price for its coal usage. In 2005, the World Health Organization recommended that cities not exceed 10 micrograms of fine particulate matter per cubic meter. Polluted districts of Ulaanbaatar boast annual averages in excess of 600 micrograms per cubic meter: approximately 60 times the accepted maximum.

Exposure to this level of pollution can result in serious health concerns, including lung cancer, respiratory infection and cardiac arrhythmia. Breathing the pollution presents residents with health risks roughly equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes per day. It has become an unavoidable two-pack-a-day habit. A recent study found that one in 10 deaths in Ulaanbaatar could be attributed to air pollution.

Everyday I check the weather forecast. I’m usually checking to determine how many layers are needed, but I’ve noticed that the forecast seldom identifies Ulaanbaatar as “sunny,” “cloudy” or “snowy.” Instead, international weather agencies classify the city’s climate as “smoky.” It seems like an apt description for the near-opaque mist that covers the city and renders natural weather patterns irrelevant.

Lucky pedestrians, including myself, wear flimsy masks that supposedly block some of the detritus in the air. The masks are specialty items, which are expensive in America and impossible to find in Mongolia. Despite the protection, I’ve already experienced quite a few coughing spells that have led me to question the mask’s efficacy. The winter months are winding down not a moment too soon.

While literal dark clouds are in the air, there may be a silver lining on the horizon. Concerted efforts are getting started to monitor pollution levels, increase energy efficiency and distribute carbon-filter masks. Volunteer organizations and non-government organizations are beginning to replace antiquated steel heating stoves with high-efficiency units, and the U.S. Embassy has started distributing free pollution masks to children.

Strapping on my own pollution mask before I go outside serves as a daily reminder of the city’s dangerous air quality; however, I hope that with enough dedication, the situation can improve. Less than 25 years ago, Ulaanbaatar was a clean city with clear skies. Maybe in the next 25 years it can return to the same pristine beauty synonymous with the rest of Mongolia.


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