What can we do to help reduce air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and protect us and our families? A hundred of young Mongolians were trying to find an answer to this question during the “Let’s discuss at the UN” event, initiated and organized by the United Nations Youth Advisory Panel (UNYAP) with UNICEF’s support.
The day of the event is a beautiful spring day and the name is Unworn Masks. These were not chosen randomly. Protection from highly polluted air is an important issue in Mongolia, but the problem is easily forgotten in spring, once the temperatures rise and visible smog disappears. The UNYAP’s purpose is therefore to educate the youth on the issue also outside the winter season, when air pollution is the worst due to burning of raw coal for heating and cooking.
“I started worrying about air pollution when I was a university student. My sister is very active on social media and once she shared a post asking what we can do about it. That got me thinking – we all know that air pollution is a problem, but we as young people don’t really know how to fight it. Why do we always talk about it only in winter? Everything changes very slowly here in Mongolia, so we need to do something in advance,” said Nomin-Erdene Z., one of the participants.
To educate young people about air pollution and advise them how to protect themselves, UNYAP invited various experts, who were talking not only about the health effects of toxic air, but also explained what has already been done in Mongolia to reduce the risks.
“We have a significant child health crisis in the country because of air pollution. For many years, people were talking about air pollution as an environmental issue, but not as a child health issue,” said UNICEF Mongolia Representative Alex Heikens. He added that the problem starts already during pregnancy, since the breathable airborne particles known as PM2.5 can have a negative impact on the fetus. And the list of health problems continues – low birth weight, behavior issues and frequent cases of asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis.
“I was pregnant last winter and I could immediately tell the difference from my previous pregnancy which I spent in the USA. My morning sickness was much worse here in Mongolia and I had trouble sleeping. I could also feel the difference anytime I left Ulaanbaatar and went to the countryside,” said one of the participants Zaya, adding that thanks to the conference, she finally learnt how dangerous PM2.5 is.
“The particles can get into blood stream, which is why it can negatively influence your mental health. It can cause anxiety, depression, poor performance at school or work and even affect IQ,” explained B.Uugantsetseg, Executive Director of National Center of Psychology. She mentioned that the air pollution has also negative impact on young people’s social life, as they rarely meet each other in the evenings during winter time.
According to Ms Undrakh, a founder of Princess center (NGO helping female victims of violence), air pollution affects working mothers too. As their children get sick frequently during winter, mothers must stay at home with them and their work performance worsens rapidly.
“Next winter, I will wear the mask more often”
The event also included an interactive workshop, during which the participants got a chance to discuss the topic of air pollution with their peers. As it turned out, the youth already have a lot of ideas on how to protect their health and help reduce the pollution in Ulaanbaatar. Educating their friends and relatives, communicating with local politicians, monitoring the air at their homes and exercising regularly – these were just some of the ideas they had. “Every day we should be grateful and thank our body for working properly,” a participant said.
Since the conference also welcomed many young people with disabilities, the participants got to hear their perspective on the issue. “I learnt today about UNICEF’s initiative on making a Mongolian traditional ger more energy efficient and better insulated. I know that many such ger innovations are happening, but the needs of people with disabilities are never considered,” pointed out one of the participants. “Most people with physical disabilities live in gers, so their special needs must be considered in innovations such as these.”
The participants also suggested to drive cars less often and walk instead. But especially in winter, this change cannot be safely done without wearing the face masks.
“I have to admit, I don’t wear a face mask during winter. I never really believed it can help. That’s also why I decided to attend this event, to learn more about it and maybe change my mind. Today I found out that masks can provide some level of protection if you wear the right ones with right fit. Next winter, I will try to wear a mask more often,” said one of the participants during the final discussion.
Energy, tools and ideas
The topic of air pollution was first in the series of events, which will be organized every quarter by UNYAP and held at UN House. The conference clearly showed that young Mongolians are very much interested in what is happening around them – although only one hundred youngsters were eventually selected to participate in the event, the registration form was filled out by over 500 people. These people represented a whole generation of young Mongolians filled with energy and passion to learn, participate and drive for a positive change in the society.
“You, the young generation, have the energy, tools and ideas, and you can push for change to happen,” said UNICEF’s Alex Heikens in his closing remarks.