News, Protect Yourself, Reduce Pollution

5 Tips to Survive Ulaanbaatar’s Brutal Winter

25 · Jan · 2021
Photograph by: Selenge Dima

By Jenny Han Simon and Anu Bazarragchaa

Mongolia’s winters are notoriously cold, dry, and long. The winter season starts at the end of October and runs until late March or early April. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach – 40℃ during the heart of the winter months, with air pollution consequently reaching toxic levels. Below are some tips for preparing for a Mongolian winter, with an emphasis on how to protect yourself and your loved ones from the difficult weather and air pollution. 

1. Secure warm clothing

Staying warm is the first step to protecting your overall health, as it will keep you from getting a variety of cold-induced health conditions like frostbite and hypothermia. It will also help protect against influenza, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other ailments that are frequent during the winter months.

A warm coat, boots, and other winter accessories are a necessity during the harsh UB winter. You may choose to purchase these at stores and markets, like Narantuul. Ensure that your extremities—hands, feet, ears, face—are bundled up in order to protect against frostbite. Boots with non-slip soles and insulation are also incredibly important, as once the first snow falls in Ulaanbaatar, it turns to a sheet of ice that will not thaw until the spring. Learning to walk carefully and navigate these icy sidewalks and streets is important to reduce the risk of falling. If you are driving, make sure to get winter tires and always have de-icing instruments ready in your car. 

 As the entire world is in the midst of battling COVID-19, and as Mongolia is currently in a strict lockdown to limit any potential spread, make sure you’re monitoring your health for symptoms of COVID. The trifecta of flu season, COVID, and air pollution that Mongolia’s winter brings this year is extremely troublesome. Remember to take the proper precautions against COVID when outside: sanitize your hands frequently, limit social interaction, and wear a mask and gloves. When entering your home after being outside, change your clothes and leave outside clothes in an isolated area before cleaning. Also, sanitize yourself and anything you brought from the outside into your home, and continue to stay up-to-date on the latest COVID recommendations and regulations implemented by your local government.

2. Invest in air pollution protection

Photograph by Suniko Bazargarid | People In Need

Air pollution protection comes in different shapes, sizes, and qualities. Depending on the severity of the есөн ес or “the nine nines” (the coldest nine days of Mongolia’s winter), Ulaanbaatar’s Air Quality Index (AQI) can go from a median of 50 to an alarming 800+ in a matter of a few days. AQI measures how safe the air in a given space is based on a number of pollutants. Currently, a safe AQI is considered between 0-50, and anything over 100 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups and can lead to both short and long-term health conditions depending on the time and level of exposure. In order to best prepare for the winter, you need to brace yourself for the volatile change in air quality. 

There are variants to the recommended N99 or N95 masks, which come with or without a respiration valve and are usually a half-dome shape. There are locally manufactured masks that work for up to a week; they are most often utilized by construction and other trade workers. Other types of mask are polyester or cotton masks with or without insertable filters. Simple cloth masks without any type of filter, such as surgical masks, are not adequate to protect against air pollution. Check out this article on masks for further advice.

In addition to personal wearable protection, one should take precautions to prevent indoor air pollution. The easiest way to do this is to insulate your indoor space to keep out outdoor air pollution and purify the air indoors with an air purifier. Check if your building has good insulation, and insulate if needed by sealing cracks in doors and windows. Beginning in October, most families that dwell in older, Russian-style homes insulate their homes and windows accordingly. Ask a neighbor for tips, and go to your local hardware store for tools and supplies. Air purifiers can be bought at any electronics store (BSB, iTZone, eMart, PCMall, Nomin, etc.). You can also order personal protective equipment and tools to protect your home online.

3. Create a list of resources 

In order to be prepared for both everyday inconveniences and the possibility of serious emergencies during Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution season, it’s best to prepare yourself a list of resources that you can rely on and consult. For example, how will you monitor the daily air quality? Where will you buy an N95 mask when you need it? If your mask needs filters, where will you buy those? If you start to feel ill and suspect you have a respiratory infection, where will you go? Below is some general information:

  • Check the AQI daily using the map on Breathe Mongolia’s homepage
  • Where to buy masks and filters in UB:
    • Pharmacies, supermarkets, hypermarkets, and electronics stores in UB: BSB, iTZone, eMart, PCMall, Nomin.
    • Amazon
  • Find the contact details for the local family doctor’s office in your neighborhood
  • Mental health resources: 
    • Get in touch with therapists at the National Center of Mental Health here
    • Mongolian toll-free hotline: 1800200 

4. Monitor your health

To see how your body’s coping with the added stress of air pollution, try to schedule a general check-up with a health professional once or twice a year. Check your blood pressure if you have a monitoring device at home, and track it regularly especially if you have any underlying illnesses since air pollution can worsen any and all existing health conditions. Toxic air means that your body is not only exposed to hazardous chemicals, but also that its ability to circulate and utilize oxygen is compromised. As AQI measurements worsen, children and the elderly are at the greatest risk for added health complications. This affects one’s mental health too.

There are not as many resources devoted to one’s mental and emotional health in Mongolia, so you might have problems finding the right resources for your needs. You may be able to find therapists at the National Center of Mental Health here. There is also a toll-free hotline available: 1800200. 

With the added presence of COVID-19 this winter, make sure you are monitoring your health for symptoms of COVID as well. Take your temperature periodically, monitor your blood oxygen level, and consider how you are feeling overall. For example, it’s not uncommon to feel tired, especially during the wintertime, but if you’re feeling tired constantly and cannot find the energy to complete daily tasks, it may be a sign of chronic fatigue—a symptom of COVID-19. Remember that not all carriers of COVID-19 are symptomatic, and keep in mind that the symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, and health conditions brought on by air pollution are alarmingly similar. 

5. Stay up-to-date on the latest air pollution information

Breathe Mongolia | Air Pollution Map

Air pollution is a vast and complex issue that involves health sciences, climate, and atmospheric sciences, toxicology, environmental science, urban planning and policy, and more. While wearing a mask, ensuring the air inside your home is safe to breathe, and taking care of your general health are measures everybody should be taking, the fight against air pollution does not stop there. Being informed about air pollution requires more than just knowing what the daily AQI is. Protect yourself and your loved ones by staying at home when AQI measurements are high and wearing a mask if you must go out. Try to lower your emissions as much as possible by walking or taking public transportation, and utilizing clean sources of energy when possible. 

If you have the time, try to study up on the latest changes and developments in air pollution policy. Learn about the effects of air pollution on other living creatures and the environment so that you can fight air pollution by spreading the information and resources available to stop it. Together, we can eradicate air pollution. 

Not only does the Breathe Mongolia homepage offer a daily AQI monitoring map, but an abundance of other educational resources on air pollution and how to stop it. Follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter to implement air pollution education in your everyday life! 

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