02 February 2016

Air pollution endangers child’s health in Mongolia


Nandia on her way to school
©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/Enkhzul Altangerel
“When I go to school, it is very smoggy and I can’t see anything. When I cross the road in the morning on my way to school, I can’t tell if the light is red or green. Because of the smog, my throat burns and it gets sore. I get sick often” says 9 year-old Nandinzaya, her cheeks red from the cold.

Nandia lives with her parents and siblings in “ger” district - the unplanned poorest area of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. Because of the extreme temperature (that can reach -40 C) in Mongolia’s longest winter season, Nandia’s family burns raw coal for heating and cooking just like other 200 000 households in peri-urban areas. As a result, coal combustion (combined with high smoking rates) has become a leading cause for indoor and outdoor air pollution posing significant health risk to children.

Children going to school and kindergartens like Nandia breathe in heavily polluted air not only in the streets, but both at school and at home. “I heard that smog is very bad for health. It makes lungs and other organs sick” tells Nandia.

Ulaanbaatar is among the 10 most polluted cities in the world and air pollution levels in ger district have reached most dangerous levels: fine particulate matters, or PM 2.5*, which increases the risk of respiratory infections among children, are in Ulaanbaatar usually 6-7 times higher than World Health Organization standards (with picks up to 25 times in December 2015).

Nandia with her mom, Khongorzul, brother and sister 
©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/Enkhzul Altangerel
“My children get flu and sore throat very often during winter. I think that it’s because of the air pollution.”says Nandia’s mother Khongorzul. “I am worried more about the long term effects. I don’t know what will happen to them in future”.

Air pollution and its effect on children’s health

Globally, indoor air pollution contributes to 4.3 million deaths each year, and 13 per cent (534,000) of these are deaths of children under 5. More than 50 per cent of deaths among children in this age group are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter. 

In Mongolia, the three diseases that resulted in the most lost life years in 2013 in Mongolia were air pollution related. Acute Lower Respiratory Infection, specifically Pneumonia, is one of the leading causes of under-five child mortality in Mongolia (accounting for 15% of the total) and children living in a highly polluted districts of Ulaanbaatar were found to have 50% lower lung function than children living in rural areas, with concrete risks of chronic respiratory disease later in life.

“Children’s exposure to air pollution is special concern because their immune system and lungs are not fully developed. The younger the children, the greater the impact of air pollution will be on their health” explains consultant pediatrician D.Malchinkhuu, MD., PhD., from the National Centre for Maternal and Child Health. “Air pollution leads to respiratory insufficiency which is complicated with inflammation and damage child’s lungs, and cause a dangerous risk to child’s life”.

Time to act

UNICEF Mongolia is scaling up its engagement in the environment and air pollution field. In close collaboration with National partners, on 25 and 26 January UNICEF convened an international conference with top world and national experts to discuss scientific evidence on “Air Pollution and Child Health” and foster a policy discussion.  

The conference and its recommendations are triggering accelerated actions to reduce the burden of pneumonia among children in Ulaanbaatar, while simultaneously focusing on measures to reduce air pollution exposure in older children that contribute to the burden of chronic respiratory disease burdens. UNICEF will focus on reducing pneumonia incidence by supporting vaccine introduction and treatment, better nutrition and breast feeding as well as communication for behavioural change.
Bayanzurkh district of Ulaanbaatar in winter
©UNICEF Mongolia/2016/Ariunzaya Davaa
“Current exposures of children to air pollution have not been experienced by previous generations and this generation is projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life. The disease burden of pneumonia can and should be prevented as too many children still die during the longest cold season” said Roberto Benes, UNICEF Mongolia Representative. “That is why reducing air pollution is a moral imperative but also a most effective investment for Mongolia’s future generations and sustainable development built on health human capital.”

“My wish is simple. I want my children to live in an environment with clean air to breathe, it should be an essential right for every human being” says Nandia’s mother Khongorzul.

It is only with collective urgent efforts and aggressive policy measures that this hope can become a reality and UNICEF Mongolia will continue scale up its efforts to provide children with the essence of development: a healthier and greener environment to live in. 

*PM2.5 are fine Particulate Matter (PM) with diameter of 2.5micrometres or less suspended in the Earth's atmosphere. Particulates are the deadliest form of air pollution due to their ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and blood streams unfiltered. The smaller PM2.5 are particularly deadly, as they can penetrate deeper into the lungs

Author:

Enkhzul Altangerel, Digital Communications Consultant at UNICEF Mongolia

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