Beyond the valley of ashes - air pollution in Mongolia www.voicesofyouth.org
“This is a valley of ashes - a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight…” - The Great Gatsby
Spring is welcomed by silence. There are no more alarming headlines of air pollution exceeding past hazardous. We can finally breathe, for now. This vicious cycle has continued for decades with the condition worsening each time around. The aftermath of a winter of heavy pollution impacts the ecology throughout all the seasons. The butterfly effect proves to us that the movement of air caused by a harmless flap of a butterfly wing can travel halfway across the globe to become a deadly tornado. If this is really the case, who knows what devastating effects the Ulaanbaatar pollution has on the world beyond?
In 2018, the government reported that the PM 2.5 per cubic meter was at 3,320, which is 133 times the level that the World Health Organization deems safe.
Air pollution - what does it do to our bodies?
Air pollution is bad for you because you inhale it. Anybody you ask would have this common sense. But what is really happening behind the curtain of our skins?
Of course, the entire respiratory system is affected. The air we inhale contains pollutants that damage the lung tissue. Long-term vulnerability will effectively diminish the surface area of the cells which means that even when you are in an environment with clean air, your lungs will still be suffering. Similarly, someone can quit smoking and suffer from its aftermath even after 20 years. Since the pollutants, particles, and free radicals being inhaled are absorbed by the blood and transported to the heart, this not only causes cardiovascular disease, but results in all sorts of problems all over the body carried by the blood.
Delving even deeper, Ulaanbaatar now has one of the highest levels of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 - ultrafine particulates carrying harmful substances that are small enough to penetrate to the lung’s most defensive filters. In 2018, the government reported that the PM 2.5 per cubic meter was at 3,320, which is 133 times the level that the World Health Organization deems safe.
This issue significantly affects fetuses, infants and children as it heavily affects brain and lung development. With pneumonia being the second leading cause of death for children under five, respiratory infections have increased 270 per cent over the past ten years. UNICEF reported that children living in the city have a 40 per cent lower lung function than those living in rural areas. Women, in particular, are advised to stay away from heavily polluted areas as it can affect the different stages of pregnancy. Nonetheless, it was proven that men are also victims of diminished sexual health as a result of air pollution.
Smog in our brains
Thanks to the coverage of public service announcements, it is safe to say that almost everybody is aware of some of the harms of air pollution. Many were born into this and many have lived with it for decades. For this reason, many people have grown accustomed to it, and fail to get shocked by the alarming headlines. It is a similar situation to warning labels on cigarettes with disturbing graphics. James Cook University has proven this after surveying 800 people. This is also related to why people are no longer concerned with global warming. Everyone is aware of the horrible consequences, but subconsciously they filter this out as the human brain does its best to protect itself from upsetting news.
However, this does not mean that we are completely immune to our environment. Most reports on the harm of air pollution tend to focus on the negative effects of air pollution in regards to its physical effects on human health. The Health Place has conducted a nationwide study on the US titled “The Effects of Air Pollution on Individual Psychological Distress.” Over the period 1999 to 2011, the research found that particulate matter 2.5 is significantly associated with increased psychological distress.
If air pollution is causing psychological distress, resulting in anxiety, depression and other mood disorders in a developed country with much effort for health coverage and reduction of pollution, one can only imagine what it doing to the minds of those who live in the most polluted capital in the world.
Thanks to the coverage of public service announcements, it is safe to say that almost everybody is aware of some of the harms of air pollution. Many were born into this and many have lived with it for decades. For this reason, many people have grown accustomed to it, and fail to get shocked by the alarming headlines.
First and foremost, the understanding of the chemical element carbon is essential. After all, all life on earth is carbon-based. Therefore, no one can really say that carbon is bad for you, though it does have its fair share in global warming and climate change. Most air pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels. However, they are ones that already left the carbon cycle 66 million years ago. By burning them, we are bringing them back as carbon monoxide, dioxide, and other compounds, causing imbalance to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Just because it is spring, it does not mean that we wave goodbye to the smog pollution. During the warm seasons, all this pollution goes directly to the soil and rises back into the atmosphere when it gets hot. It has become a cycle of its own, spreading to all around the globe. It will continue to do so as long as there is the motion of air and water. For this reason, there is no single environmental concern that belongs to one country alone. It can still have large consequences on the other side of the world that one did not even dream of.
If all the impacts of it on the environment were mentioned and explained, it would become a series of novels on its own. To name a few, it causes acid rain, eutrophication of water bodies, the introduction of toxins to the food chain, ozone depletion, reduced plant growth and minimized crop yields, decreased carbon sequestration, loss of soil fertility and lower water content, haze and climate change.
Breathing clean air is one of the most basic human rights.
We need global action
Breathing clean air is one of the most basic human rights and solving the issue of air pollution would be a massive leap in reaching these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3: Good Health and Well-Being, SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production, SDG 13: Climate Action, and SDG 17: Partnership for the Goals.
Unfortunately, the majority of the seven billion people on this earth live in places with poor air quality. In 2012 alone, there were 6.5 million deaths associated with exposure to air pollution according to the UN Environment. The organization also stated “At the heart of the problem is a lack of political will, a symptom of legal and political order which puts private profit before public health." Developed countries, particularly in the European Union have taken court action in their respective regional governments regarding all sorts of bans to that came into force in 2019. Through this is particularly good news for this part of the world, it is similar to exporting their air pollution as it comes back to haunt other countries.
For instance, when the tobacco and diesel industry started getting pushed out of the European market, they begun to seek new markets in developing Asian and African countries, worsening their air pollution. Movements all over the world believe that citizens of the globe should be protected by binding legal standards where politicians of each region be made aware and accountable for protecting the lives of their lives without giving empty promises and pushing their own agenda. A Chinese publication has stated that there are some benefits to their air pollution as it is bringing the people closer and serving as a military defence. Even if there are 99 problems of air pollution, at least one can serve as a good thing to suppose.
Many ask why Mongolia fails to contain this problem. In recent years, Ulaanbaatar beat both Beijing and New Delhi as the most polluted capital. According to Time, the city’s topography is one factor: "like Beijing, Ulan Bator was built in a river valley and surrounding mountains trap smog like soup in a pan.”
Mongolians pride themselves for the land that is one of the last organic ones left on earth, the fresh steppe breeze and warm sunlight. Yet, about half of the blue birthmarked people live in the midst of the valley of ashes.
Ms. Undariya, 19, is a member of the UNYAP Mongolia and a former contributor to the “UB Post” - Mongolia’s only English newspaper.