ULAANBAATAR: In the world’s coldest capital, many burn coal and plastic just to survive temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees — but warmth comes at a price: deadly pollution makes Ulaanbataar’s air too toxic for children to breathe, leaving parents little choice but to evacuate them to the countryside.
This exodus is a stark warning of the future for urban areas in much of Asia, where scenes of citizens in anti-pollution masks against a backdrop of brown skies are becoming routine, rather than apocalyptic.
Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted cities on the planet, alongside New Delhi, Dhaka, Kabul, and Beijing. It regularly exceeds World Health Organisation recommendations for air quality even as experts warn of disastrous consequences, particularly for children, including stunted development, chronic illness, and in some cases death.
Erdene-Bat Naranchimeg watched helplessly as her daughter Amina battled illness virtually from birth, her immune system handicapped by the smog-choked air in Mongolia’s capital.
“We would constantly be in and out of the hospital,” Naranchimeg told AFP, adding that Amina contracted pneumonia twice at the age of two, requiring several rounds of antibiotics.
This is not a unique case in a city where winter temperatures plunge towards uninhabitable, particularly in the districts that rural workers moved to in search of a better life.
Here row upon row of the traditional tents — known as gers — are warmed by coal, or any other flammable material available. The resulting thick black smoke shoots out in plumes, blanketing surrounding areas in a film of smog that makes visibility so poor it can be hard to see even a few metres ahead.
Hospitals are packed and young children are vulnerable, common colds can quickly escalate into life-threatening illness.
he situation was so bad that doctors told Naranchimeg the only solution was to send her little girl to the clean air of the countryside.
Now aged five, Amina is thriving. She lives with her grandparents in Bornuur Sum, a village 135 kilometres away from the capital.
“She hasn’t been sick since she started living here,” said Naranchimeg, who makes the three-hour round trip to see Amina every week.
“It was very difficult in the first few months,” she said. “We used to cry when we talked on the phone.”
But like many parents in Ulaanbaatar, she felt the move was the only way to protect her child.
The levels of PM2.5 — tiny and harmful particles — in Ulaanbaatar reached 3,320 in January, 133 times what the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers safe.
The effects are terrible for adults but children are even more at risk, in part because they breathe faster, taking in more air and pollutants.
As they are smaller, children are also closer to the ground, where some pollutants concentrate, and their still-developing lungs, brains, and other key organs are more vulnerable to damage.
Effects to prolonged exposure range from persistent infections and asthma to slowed lung and brain development.
The risks apply in utero, too, because gases and fine particles can enter a mother’s bloodstream and placenta, causing miscarriage, birth defects and low birth weights, which can also affect a child for the rest of their lives.
Researchers are now investigating whether pollution, like exposure to tobacco smoke, has health effects that could even be passed down to the next generation.