News, Pregnancy

Dying to Breathe: How Mongolia Is Killing Its Future

23 · Nov · 2020
Photograph by: Suniko Bazargarid | People In Need

By Anu Bazarragchaa

Ulaanbaatar, MONGOLIA — Mongolia has an ongoing air pollution problem like none other. Despite numerous attempts to tackle the problem throughout the last two decades, Mongolia’s air pollution has gotten exponentially worse. Those who face the most severe health effects are Mongolia’s smallest residents—children.

According to a report by the National Statistics Organization, children up to the age of five saw a drastic increase in their risk of developing pneumonia in the winter months (up to seven times more than the average during summer months). Pneumonia develops when swelling (inflammation) occurs in the tissue of one or both lungs. Numerous studies over the years have suggested a correlation between air pollution levels and increased pneumonia rates. One paper published by a team of public health professionals at the University of Nottingham found that the uncontrolled use of solid fuel showed a significant association with childhood pneumonia. While PM2.5 levels are not a direct culprit, solid fuels are a proxy to increased levels of indoor PM2.5.

Figure 9. Showing recorded number of children diagnosed with pneumonia up to the age of 5, per million. Results are shown on a monthly basis from 2014-2018”. Source: National Statistics Office of Mongolia

Here, we can graphically observe a direct correlation between the amount of PM10 and increased risks of pediatric pneumonia cases. While NO2 levels are relatively stable compared to the other values, small peaks can be seen during the winter months from December through February. Exposure to higher levels of NO(2) is also associated with increased risk for asthma and pneumonia in children, which indicates that a cluster of factors play a role in these high numbers.

A further alarming statistic shows the increase of stillborn babies in Mongolia:  81 stillborns per million births were recorded in 2018. This is a 58% increase from its recorded value in 2014.

Figure 12. Stillbirths, birth defects and neonatal deaths recorded per million. Data was taken from recorded births per million, 2014-2018. Source: National Statistics of Office Mongolia

The increased number of stillborn babies coincides with a lack of hospital funding. According to a report by the WHO on Mongolia’s health system in 2013 “…the number of personnel and the budget [for hospitals] have not risen, and maternity houses and restrooms were reported as ‘overloaded’.” 

As the demand for more beds and health professionals increases, hospitals face a unique crisis: they simply do not have enough beds. The little patients who have no luck finding a place to stay in the hospital are forced to turn to their last option—home. These children are often met with hazardous levels of smog, putting them at risk of developing life-threatening respiratory illnesses at a very young age.

Children who live in environments of elevated PM 2.5 levels were also found to have the most absence and lowest academic performances according to a study conducted in Michigan in 2011. Childhood is an important period of time for the brain to develop, and these results suggest possible developmental delay and may cause problems in the future. 

What does this say about the country’s future? Mongolia proudly boasts its very young population, a miracle demographic, to the world. But this miracle demographic may become an age group with an alarmingly high need for healthcare and pharmaceutical support in the future. A majority of this demographic will likely be riddled with chronic respiratory illnesses and other lasting health conditions because of the place they call home.

That is, if we don’t act now to eradicate air pollution.

But if we consider the current air-pollution factors plaguing Mongolia and its youth —lack of adequate healthcare, insufficient housing and infrastructure, a lack of governmental accountability, etc.—where will this leave Mongolia’s future generations?

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