Putting a magnifying glass on air pollution

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  • Jan 12,2017
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It’s 6:50 a.m. in the morning. I wake up next to my beeping alarm clock to see the usual blanket of smoke covering the city in my view through the window. With a cup of coffee in hand and its aroma enveloping the room, I look at the poetically beautiful but realistically lethal sight: smoky Ulaanbaatar. In the sky, a beautiful dark gray to blue gradient spans from the north to the south, and a navy blue streak is followed by a thick swatch of dark gray, and then by a softer gray from the sky to the ground. The smell of smoke fills my nostrils and lungs as I take the first step out of what seems to be my safe haven, my home. It instantly triggers a minor headache. What we jokingly say often is that we Mongolians are a fast-adapting people, and that we’ve probably already adapted to the smoke. Some have uttered this phrase so much that they actually believe it themselves. According to E.Undarmaa, a teacher at the Mongolian National University of Medical Sciences, you don’t want your body to adapt to pollution. “It’s not even adapting, your cells are changing for the worse,” she says. I instantly put on my air filtration mask, hoping to God it doesn’t ruin my makeup or that it doesn’t imprint itself on my face. The mask's exterior seems to be resembling the gray shade I so often see every morning. I’ve only worn it for four days.


 The problem – in environmental and medical terms

 According to German Mongolian Institute of Technology Professor S.Lodoisamba, an anti-cyclone from Siberia brings cold currents to Mongolia during winter, causing a temperature inversion and blocking hot air loaded with pollutants underneath the cold air, the air we and our children breathe. As Ulaanbaatar is framed by four mountains with the city's center in the middle of the convex, the city is especially vulnerable to these atmospheric conditions. The prevailing wind from the northwest blows the ger district's smoke into the city center and leaves people vulnerable to the dangers of air pollution. In Ulaanbaatar, coal combustion is the primary cause of the most toxic pollutant, PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. Basically, the number behind the PM indicates the size of the particulate matter, which is measured by the unit μg/m3. PM2.5 is 1/20 the size of a single strand of hair and consists of different elements, such as carbon, crustal material, and ammonium sulfate. The fine particulate matter travels through your respiratory system, then into your bloodstream through the pulmonary alveoli of your lungs, a canal that pumps oxygen to your blood. Its entry into the bloodstream enables it to reach every part of the body it pleases, thus there are a number of different diseases associated with the body absorbing PM2.5. Air pollution is the cause of major cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and is linked to seven million premature deaths around the world. In 2010, one in 10 deaths in Ulaanbaatar (1,600 deaths) were attributable to air pollution, and 8,500 individuals were hospitalized due to air pollution, according to a 2011 study conducted by Ryan Allen of Simon Fraser University. The study suggested that a 3.0 μg/m3 increase of PM2.5 leads to a 27 percent increase in the estimated number of attributable deaths (12 in 100 deaths).In Allen's study, the average PM2.5 in winter was approximately 200 μg/m3. Now, more than five years later, the air pollution has only increased, reaching 520 μg/m3 on a normal -20˚C morning.The duration of exposure and the increased concentration of pollutants both increase the risk of major health complications. The smoke is costing us more than it should. Some people shared their medical experiences on the Facebook group Parents Against Air Pollution. “Because the lines at public hospitals are too long for children my girl’s age, I had to go to a private hospital and pay over one million MNT for hospitalization. It’s very inconvenient for a young family like ours,” said Bolortsetseg. Mongolians usually think Beijing's air is worse than Ulaanbaatar’s. The graph below is a comparison of air quality in Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. Thanks to statistical modeling by Maelle Salmon, I found that UB's PM2.5 levels have surpassed those of Beijing almost 50 percent of the time since last September. In Beijing, they call their pollution the “airpocalypse”. Here, it’s no more than a “smoky” weather forecast on your iPhone.

 air pollutionThe institutional source of the problem

When Mongolia transitioned to democracy, poor infrastructure in rural regions of the country and disorganized urban planning and management in the city led to an urban population boom. Ulaanbaatar's population grew from 612,100 to 1,345,500 within two decades, from 1995 to 2015, according to the National Statistical Office. Now, Ulaanbaatar is nowhere near as densely populated as other big cities around the world. In fact, it’s five times less densely populated than London. Unfortunately, the city has not been developing as fast as its population. Rural people moving to Ulaanbaatar bring their gers, traditional housing which uses a stove for heating and cooking. They build their gers on densely packed plots of land in areas bordering the city, referred to as ger districts, which have turned into a hub of pollution. If Ulaanbaatar was not the coldest capital in the world, it never would’ve become the city with the world's worst air pollution. The availability and the cheap cost of coal makes it the most attractive solution to combating the cold. Approximately 146,000 households (40 percent of Ulaanbaatar's households) live in ger districts. This accounts for roughly 50 percent of the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. According to Agaar.mn, the power plants burn a combined 5.1 million tons of coal a year, 10 times more than the entire ger district combined, but studies suggest they are responsible for “only” 10 percent of the city's air pollution. The government’s 1999 Air Protection Policy resolution called for the power plants to improve the quality of their fuel and to install high quality air filters in their flues by 2010, which did take place. Clearly, the law seemed to work then and the solution was well planned. Previous governments have executed multiple projects and programs, like Coal and Stove, which have all proven to be futile. During an interview with MMInfo.mn, Minister of Environment and Tourism D.Oyunkhorol blamed “faulty policy, poor planning, and a lack of communication between government agencies” for why the 135 billion MNT spent by the Clean Air Fund between 2011 and 2015 amounted to no success. Definitely words we’ve never heard before. Why aren’t the people who contributed to faulty policies and poor planning being held accountable or responsible for anything? They had one job and they couldn’t do it. Recently, Xinhua reported that 2,682 Chinese officials were “held accountable for [enforcing] poor environmental protection efforts”. Even China is pursuing accountability. Our government has a nice way of handling these types of situations. “It doesn’t matter whose responsibility it is. Right now, we just have to focus on how to solve it.” A whole ministry can’t work on two things at the same time? FormerMinister of Agriculture R.Burmaa, said the same thing during a feud with wheat farmers, and now a different ministry is saying the same thing about air pollution. They’re basically saying, “We wasted 135 billion MNT of your money to make you breathe even more toxic air, but who cares who the culprit is, let’s just solve it,” which would be fine and dandy if they were actually solving the problem. During a speech, Minister D.Oyunkhorol stated that her ministry was planning renewable energy projects, building a fifth power plant, plants to convert waste to electricity, and relocating ger district residents, and said it was important to not repeat past mistakes. If it’s important we don’t “poorly plan” this time, why are these projects starting to be discussed only after hundreds of people demonstrated in the cold? It’s not like the pollution appeared overnight, or that it only appears in January.


Let’s do some math here. Bob lives in a small house in the ger district. He burns roughly a sack of coal per day, and usually burns 25 sacks every month thanks to his new project stove. With a conventional stove he used to burn twice as much coal. A sack of coal costs 3,500 MNT, which means he spends about 87,500 MNT on coal every month, and 612,500 MNT every year for heating from October to May. Now, the state is offering free nighttime electricity to ger district residents from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., from January to April. To take advantage of this program, all Bob has to do is go to his district and sign a contract, install an electricity meter with a day and nighttime setting (which costs up to 85,000 MNT), and buy electric heaters (which range in cost from 90,000 MNT to 1,800,000 MNT). This is all problematic if you think about the time and transportation costs required to find the most efficient heater. On Monday and Tuesday, the ministry organized the Your Participation in Decreasing Air Pollution expo, bringing together retailers offering electric heaters, air filters, stoves, alternative fuels, and heat loss prevention technology. This definitely helped people with their selection process, and a lot of ger district residents were informed and went to the expo. So, Bob buys the cheapest heater for 90,000 MNT, which is able to heat 32 square meters and uses 1kW energy, which means it will cost 45,000 MNT per month for heating during the day, and 135,000 MNT for the three months the government will provide free nighttime electricity. After March, he will probably need to burn coal again. The average household uses 250 kWh of energy per month. One hundred kWh will be free now, saving residents 7,700 MNT every month and costing the state 30 billion MNT, says Ts.Enkhsaikhan, head of the Sales Management Division of the Ulaanbaatar Electricity Distribution Network. Is this measure really worth the cost? Songinokhairkhan District resident B.Altantsetseg says, “The total cost of trying to switch to electricity for only three months costs way more money than burning coal. There are also doubts about whether or not the government will waive nighttime electricity tariffs next year. Then we would’ve spent all that money on other commodities instead, such as better shoes for my children.”


Short-term plans should be considered, although there’s a bigger need to look far into the future for permanent solutions at the same time. I believe the ministry is doing all that they can at the moment with their current resources. The best short-term action is to increase public awareness about the causes and dangers of air pollution, to reach the audience which needs to hear it the most. The ministry has been organizing a few events and exhibitions to inform the public about air pollution and to improve access to electric heaters, air purifiers, and what not. At this time though, we can’t sit on our hands and rely on the ministry to do all the work, or just demonstrate to demand that they do all the work. We have to unite and cooperate to bring about change, as we did with the Democratic Revolution. Instead of demonstrating at the square just to hear people talk about long-term solutions, let’s learn about what we’re fighting. Let’s talk to people, and to our family and children, until they listen and understand. Let’s try to change morals and behavior. We can all bring about change just by informing people of the consequences of their actions. Prevention outweighs the cure regarding the pain and economic strain of pollution. Initially, we have to invest in ourselves and our family members by wearing air filtration masks. Mongolians are manufacturing MTsJ masks in Erdenet, which fulfill FFP2 standards. They’re 2,600 MNT each and are being sold at MedImpex pharmacies. 3M masks range in price from 2,000 MNT to 15,000 MNT, depending on their efficiency, and are sold at most Petrovis gas stations and at the pharmacy at Public Hospital No.1. The 2,600 MNT you’ll spend every two weeks could save you 10 to 1,000 times more in medical costs in the future. By understanding these facts, we can persuade others to change their behavior. We have a chance to help ger district residents make better decisions, decisions which will not only affect them but us. We’re all in this together, and we’re doing this for us. Globally, we need to find solutions that can systemically improve air quality instead of relying on other sources of pollutants. The world's brightest minds are working to prevent air pollution and to address climate change. In the meantime, the least we can do is to fight for ourselves.  For more data from OpenAQ, go to http://ropensci.github.io/ropenaq/