The U.S. Embassy sits in one of the most polluted districts in Ulaanbaatar due to its location at the base of the Zuun ail ger district and its proximity to a cluster of nearby light industrial sites. But the Embassy is not unique. Ulaanbaatar’s urban residents are exposed to harmful pollution every day. During the cold winter months, Mongolia’s capital has the dubious distinction of having some of the most dangerously polluted air in the world, according to studies and reports published by the World Bank.
People’s exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and other pollutants (nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone) has serious health impacts, even if these impacts are sometimes slow to reveal themselves and not always visible to the average person. Particulate matter (PM), a major component of air pollution, was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2013 as a cancer-causing agent in humans. This recognition of PM as a carcinogen elevated the seriousness of the air pollution issue across the globe. The latest available statistics indicate that 3.2 million deaths worldwide, 223,000 from lung cancer, resulted from air pollution in 2010. There is an increasing amount of evidence linking air pollution to cardio-vascular and lung disease. For example, Simon Fraser University researchers in Canada estimated that 29 percent of cardiopulmonary deaths and 40 percent of lung cancer deaths are attributable to Ulaanbaatar’s outdoor air pollution. These deaths correspond to nearly 10 percent of the city’s total mortality.
Due to the seriousness of the situation, Mongolia’s health sector is taking steps to address these air pollution challenges in order to prevent a public health crisis. The Public Health Institute of Mongolia (PHI) helps raise awareness about air pollution and how residents can take preventive safeguards.
A recent example is the international conference held January 25-26, organized by PHI, the Ministry of Health and Sports, the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism, and the National Authority for Children, with support from UNICEF. About 160 attendees from international organizations, government ministries, and the health community participated. Researchers from Mongolia and from overseas, including many from universities in the United States, presented their research findings and discussed practical next steps and potential solutions. The focus of the conference was a critical one – the impact of air pollution on children’s health.
The U.S. government and the U.S. Embassy are eager to support the work of organizations like PHI and are taking diverse steps to address air quality issues in Ulaanbaatar.
The Embassy is supporting awareness raising activities, such as the recent art exhibit at 976 Art Gallery, “Lost Children of Heaven II.” This exhibit presented mixed media projects, performance, paintings, and photos from leading contemporary artists in Mongolia to generate public discussion and inspire the public to get involved.
The U.S. government is also taking practical science and market-based steps to address the problem. First, the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation subsidized the sale in Ulaanbaatar of more than 100,000 clean cook stoves from 2011 to 2013. These stoves emit approximately 65 percent less PM2.5 emissions than the older stoves they replaced. Second, the Embassy also installed in December its own air monitoring station and now collects and records air pollution data from the Embassy compound. The Embassy makes the data available via a Twitter feed (twitter.com/USEmbUBAir) and website (www.stateair.mn), so that Embassy staff, the medical and science community, the government of Mongolia, other Ulaanbaatar denizens, and internet users all over the world can use and analyze the data for their own purposes.
PHI and the U.S. Embassy hope that sound policies and targeted investments, along with the hard work of all Mongolia’s dedicated government officials and medical researchers can reduce the health burden presented by air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. But this is not enough. We must focus our efforts on getting the public even more involved. Only if all affected parties collaborate consistently to combat one of the greatest public health challenges facing Mongolia can we achieve our common goals. So join with us to solve this critical problem. Together, our combined efforts will make a positive difference.
Environment, Science, Technology, and Health officer,
U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar
Tsogtbaatar Byambaa, PhD
Director of the Public Health Institute of Mongolia