Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution crisis: Summertime complacency won’t solve the wintertime problem


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No mountains are visible beyond this pollution cloud. (Late November 2007)

It certainly feels like the worst of winter is over for another year, well until December anyway. Daytime temperatures now reach above 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) regularly, the city’s ice sculptures have melted and the slippery footpaths have thawed, making walking in the city safer and easier. There’s also a visible improvement in Ulaanbaatar’s (UB) air quality.

On most days, from my office window, I can now see the beautiful snow-dappled mountains that surround UB; during the heavily polluted winter months the horizon is completely hidden behind a thick grey-brown smoky haze. 

UB is the coldest capital city in the world and during the coldest months of the year—December, January and February—the air quality is dangerously bad. In fact, UB is fast becoming the world’s most polluted city; a remarkable achievement considering its population only hovers around the 1.2 million mark.

The pollution is visibly worse in the wintertime. This is because coal-fueled ger (traditional felted tents) stoves and boilers used for heating and cooking produce toxic black smoke plumes that hover like a blanket over the often windless city. The chokingly-thick pollution is a result of a combination of factors: the poor combustion of coal in what are essentially wood stoves, the congested road traffic (it’s too cold to walk and many cars are of a substandard quality), the dry ground condition and industry.

UB choking under a blanket of smoke. Unbelievably there’s a city down there.

For about eight months of the year heating is essential for the survival of residents. 60 percent of the city’s residents live in peri-urban ger districts; areas populated in the main by very poor people from Mongolia’s rural areas who are arriving in a steady flow. UB’s population has expanded by 70 percent over the last 20 years and unfortunately the city’s infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the growth. In these areas, which are mainly located upwind of the city, the only source of heating are poor quality stoves or individual household boilers fueled by coal, wood and in some cases rubbish—varying from black tar dipped bricks to old car tires. UB’s remaining citizens live in apartment buildings heated by three coal-burning heat and power stations. All forms of household heating in UB contribute to the air pollution problem.

The number of cars on the city’s roads seems to be increasing daily. In such a small city, one that’s easily navigable by foot, people sit in grid-locked traffic for hours. Drivers beep their horns impatiently and ineffectually, hoping for movement, while pumping carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air and the faces of those braving the cold or waiting to cross the street. When cars do move, further dust is released into the air, especially in the ger areas where most of the roads remain unpaved. 

Additionally, according to the Bank’s joint research with the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Air Research Institute, one of the worst sources of the pollution is dust. The dust originates from the ger heating appliances, the desert, the dry ground condition and the ash ponds emanating from the power plants. With few trees and hardly any parkland in UB, the regularity and severity of windstorms in the city is increasing, creating dangerous levels of airborne dust. Strong winds, particularly in spring, also allow dust from the Gobi desert and other arid regions of Mongolia to reach the city.

On a bad day, the city’s air pollution is so thick you cough when you walk outside. I’ve also witnessed cars turning on their headlights at 10am for visibility. An Australian woman who volunteers at the Bank refuses to walk outside without wearing a heavy-duty air pollution mask. People often laugh at her ridiculous appearance, she’s even been photographed by children passing her in the street, but she’s seriously worried about the potential long-term damage. What about the Mongolian people? What about the children being born here? A woman in our office is due to give birth within the next two months. After she has her baby in UB, she’s planning to spend at least two months out in the countryside, as it’s a sure strategy to guarantee her newborn child is breathing in clean air. She is concerned for her child’s health here in UB.

Smoke billowing from one of the UB’s power stations. It’s so thick it obscures the sun.
In UB, annual average particulate matter concentrations (PM10, i.e., particles that cause damage in the lungs when inhaled) have been recorded at as high as 279. To put this into perspective, the World Health Organization’s recommended PM10 level is 20. This means that UB’s PM10 levels are 14 times higher than the WHO’s recommendation. UB has left Northern China’s most polluted cities in its wake.
The health implications of the pollution are shocking. Levels of premature death, chronic bronchitis, respiratory hospital admissions and cardiovascular diseases are increasing at an extraordinarily rapid rate. Something must be done.

As the weather warms up, there is a danger that the wintertime levels of pollution will become a distant memory. But rather than forgetting about the problem, now should be the time for action. Some experts claim the solution is to relocate ger area residents into apartment buildings, but who will pay for these apartments and their water, electricity, heating and maintenance bills? Other experts recommend the installation of new, better-quality heating appliances, combined with enforcing the use of environmentally friendly fuel. But again, who will pay for this? Other options include better insulation for gers and houses, increased public education, a strengthening of pollution monitoring and enforcement and improving the city’s heating network.
The truth is there’s no easy answer, there’s no single solution. Only one thing is certain…if we are complacent now, the wintertime air pollution problem will return again and again.

Click here to view the Mongolia: Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar - Initial Assessment of Current Situation and Effects of Abatement Measures report. This report was published in Mongolia in March 2010 and provides effective and economical air pollution abatement strategies.

Click here to view the Mongolia: Enhancing Policies and Practices for Ger Area Development in Ulaanbaatar report. This report was published in Mongolia in March 2010 and provides urban policy makers with sustainable ger area development strategies.

Robin Grayson
April 23, 2010

Arshad - first of all, congratulations on your excellent post, raising awareness of the problem.

However there is a need for recognition that Ulaanbaatar's air pollution problems also include RADON, as revealed by a holistic approach:
1: the power stations use high-ash high moisture brown coals, that also have above average uranium U content. Remarkably in the soviet data on open file in the State Geofund, the coordinates of the Shivee Ovoo Coal Deposit is effectively the same as the Shivee Ovoo Uranium Occurrence. Additionally the Geofund lists large numbers of Coal Occurences as being "Uraniferous".
2: Combustion in UB Thermo-Electric Power Plants TES #2, TES#3 and TES#4 (plus proposed #5), and many heating plants plus of course the ger areas liberate not only particulates into the air but also leave high-U residual ash and clinker behind.
3: The pulverised fuel creates enormous volumes of pulverized fuel ash (PFA) from #2, #3 and #4 that is recovered in large settling lagoons.
4: The PFA lagoons periodically become full and allowed to dry out, so causing signficant PFA dust pollution excusions into the residential areas in summer.
5: The PFA lagoons are mined (without mining license and apparently without EIAs) to free up more capacity for more PFA ash, and the PFA used to make PFA blocks, PFA bricks, PFA cement and PFA concrete.
6: As normal worldwide, the PFA (and clinker) safely locks up the traces of heavy metals that did not vapourise to be emitted with the flue gases.
7: Unfortunately the uranium content in the PFA is rather high.
8: For external pavings usage of PFA+U is not an issue.
9: Unfortunately the extensive use of PFA+U in buildinh construction materials is a very signficant issue, due to release of radioactive decay product - radon Ra gas - that is significantly carcinogenic.
10: Radon gas is to be expected in new buildings constructed in UB with PFA in their raw materials, which means virtually all new buildings.
11: Last year the World Heath Organisation WHO cut the acceptable level of Radon gas in buildings by about 50% emphasing the concern of worldwide expert opinion.
12: Radon will accumulate to dangerous levels inside buildings with tight insulation as is typical of all apartments, offices, schools and hospitals in Ulaanbaatar during winter to retain heat, and again in summer to maintain modern air conditioning, such as in the World Bank offices.
13: Gers are not immune, just because the ash from the stoves is thrown outside. In due course the ger shifts position and inevitably will be repositioned on ash. Radon can then be expected to be a health problem especially in winter when the ger is largely sealed.
14: Coal Bed Methane CBM is a sensible low cost ash-free radon-free option for heating in the eastern end of the city, being far cheaper than the proposed TES #5 and quicker to bring on-stream using CBM from the Nailakh coalfied. TES #5 will be an environmental burden on the city that needs to be avoided.
15: The proposal for a rail link from Tavan Tolgoi TT to Ulaanbaatar has been discussed but only in the context of transporting high quality, low-U, low-ash coal to Russia. The rail link could be built to standard gauge and so allow:
a) higher calorific coal for TES #2, #3, #4 which would slash the coal consumption in the city, and further cut reduce the huge cost of TES #5
b) free up congestion on the Trans-Mongolian railway that is essentially due to internal coal traffic from Sharin Gol, Baganuur, Shivee Ovoo etc having national priority to ensure the cities get electricity and district heating in winter.
c) cut the Ash per Kilowatt drastically, making a huge drop in UB air pollution due to particulates.
d) cut the annual volume of ash and clinker that overfills the ash ponds each year, and therefore prevent the power plants becoming muck-bound so quickly and allow the dust excursions from the ash ponds to be managed and eliminated.
e) reduce the loading of ash on vegetation which bioaccumulate and biomagnify the contained heavy metals. Tests on mosses and lichens near UB show exceptionally high levels of U and other heavy metals, and tests on vegetables for human consumption are warranted.

A few of us are compiling this information for circulation to a wider audience in order to encourage "joined-up-thinking" regarding this large bundle of interlocking issues. An integrated holistic approach is clearly vital.

Our initial review is published in the World Placer Journal vol 9, see www.mine.mn

Arshad Sayed
April 26, 2010


Appreciate your very detailed and thoughtful suggestions.

What I did not realize and I do now is the significance of RADON, which frankly, I only knew through home inspections in the US when they test for RADON.

I am a novice when it comes to the technical issues on this subject, so I will ask my colleagues to take into consideration your views as they work together with the governmment in looking at options to mitigate the pollution.

If you havent already, could I suggest that you get in touch with Gailius Dreugelis who works in our China office?



Robin Grayson
April 26, 2010

Arshad - you are not alone in being new to the subject of RADON in Ulaanbaatar. It took us about 10 years to begin to understand it! Yet a great deal of information exists on this topic in academic journals and conference reports, but has been completely overlooked by all western consultants. The considerable achievements of Mongolian and Russian scientists in studies of U and RADON in Ulaanbaatar now needs integrating by them with donor support into Building Codes, Air Pollution projects and measures to cut the ash in the coal BEFORE it arrives in the city e.g. by investing in cleaning the coal at the mine sites and by bringing cleaner Gobi coal to the power plants. Special studies on RADON are needed in ger areas and new buildings to see how they can be modified at low cost to disperse radon - it is relatively easy to do.

We are keen to raise awareness of the issue and to spread technical information. Much of it is presented on our website (www.mine.mn/WPJ9_2_coal_rush.htm get the PDF), but the starred items (*) we have gathered since:


All coal is very slightly radioactive but rarely sufficient to affect human health. However Mongolia’s coal basins have sediment-associated uranium occurrences and some may prove to be world-class U deposits. For instance the Geofund records U occurrences close to some coal mines, notably Shivee Ovoo Coal Mine [14] which is one of Ulaanbaatar’s main suppliers of power station coal.

A risk may arise if power stations burn coal that has above-normal radioactivity. We believe this is likely to be the case for power stations in the capital. When such coal is burned most of its radioactive traces remain locked in the residual ash. Hence ash is slightly more radioactive than the coal it came from [3, 20].

The risk is not from ash discharged as smoke to the atmosphere via the power station’s stack. Although this contributes to Ulaanbaatar’s poor air quality in winter, ‘dilute and disperse’ of the airborne ash will render its already low radioactivity extremely low indeed. The risk from radioactivity arises from Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA) settled out in lagoons.

PFA is strongly alkaline and often has high levels of heavy metals. Ideally PFA lagoons should be sited away from water courses [23] and sealed from aquifers. Unfortunately all the PFA lagoons in Ulaanbaatar are sited above the aquifer that is the city’s sole supply of water, while the PFA lagoons of TES #3 are next to the main channel of the Tuul River.

To minimise ash being vented into the sky, as much PFA as possible is removed by electrostatic dust precipitators and piped as slurry to settling lagoons where it settles out. The PFA has an economic value, being sold to local makers of PFA-cement blocks who sell them in huge quantities to Ulaanbaatar’s construction industry.

The risk is from PFA-cement blocks incorporated into interior walls of thousands of new buildings in Ulaanbaatar. Such buildings are double glazed, insulated and centrally heated in winter, encouraging traces of radon escaping from the PFA-cement blocks to accumulate in rooms and perhaps exceed international safety norms.

The risk to human health of radon in buildings has become better understood since 1996 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended a maximum exposure of 1,000 Becquerel’s/m3. In September 2009 the WHO slashed the recommended maximum level tenfold to 100 Becquerel’s/m3 [37] and presented evidence that radon exposure causes in the range of 3-14% of all lung cancers. The WHO now advises that if a country cannot meet the new standard, levels should not exceed 300 Becquerel’s/m3, noting that the risk of lung cancer rises 16% per 100 Becquerel’s.

The task now is to do radon assessments of thousands of houses and apartments in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolian scientists possess the know-how [13], but funding is weak although preliminary studies have been published [18]. Some tests have already been made on the soils around TES #4 and on the coals it uses [7, 8, 9].

We suggest a special risk may exist for caretakers and their families in gers and sheds constructed on ground covered in PFA in fenced yards of PFA processors. The WHO claims that radon exposure adds to the risk of lung cancer from cigarette smoke. In highly insulated gers with radon entering from PFA soil, the risk of lung cancer among smokers and passive inhalers is apparent.

According to Dr. Badarch and colleagues [5] if coal cleaning facilities operated at Baganuur and Shivee Ovoo then the calorific content would be boosted before delivery to TES #4. This would save 134,000 tons of coal a year, cut the work of the electrostatic precipitators in removing ash, conserve scarce space in the PFA settling ponds, cut air pollution significantly in Ulaanbaatar, reduce radon-emitting materials and reduce rail congestion.

3. Anon (2009). Potential environmental impact associated with pulverized fuel ash. Chapter 11 in: West New Territories (WENT) Landfill Extensions - Feasibility Study Final Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Ove Arup & Partners.
5. Badarch, Mendbayar; Damdinsuren Gantulga, Gombusoren Luvsan and Jargal Dorjpurev (2006). Energy Efficiency Study of Thermal Power Plant #4 Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Promotion of Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency and Greenhouse Gas Abatement (PREGA). Technical Report submitted to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 46 pages.
7. Batmunkh, S.; and Z. Battogtokh (2007). The exhausting pollutants from coal combustion of Fourth Thermal Power Plant of Ulaanbaatar. International Forum on Strategic Technology held October 2007 in Ulaanbaatar. Proceedings, pages 158-161.
8. Batmunkh, S.; S. Enkhbat, B. Erdev, Z. Battogtokh and T. Batbuyan (2007). Activity concentrations of natural radionuclides in soil near TPP-4 of Ulaanbaatar. International Forum on Strategic Technology IFOST, held 3rd-6th October 2007 in Ulaanbaatar. Proceedings, pages 628-629.
9. Batmunkh, S.; J. Garidkhuu, T. Bat-Ulzii, B. Erdev, P. Ochirbat and B. Jargalsaikhan (2007). Ecological map of Ulaanbaatar city. International Forum on Strategic Technology held October 2007 in Ulaanbaatar. Proceedings, pages 636-637.
13. Damdinsuren, Ts.; G. Manlaijav and N. Oyuntulkhuur (2004). Country Report - Mongolia. Appendix 15B, PowerPoint Presentation to International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA/RCA Mid-term Review Meeting of National Focal Persons on Radiation Protection, held 7-11th June 2004 in Beijing.
14. Dejidmaa, G.; B. Bujinlkham, A. Eviihuu, B. Enkhtuya, T. Ganbaatar, N. Moenkh-Erdene and N. Oyuntuya (2001). Distribution Map of Deposits and Occurrences in Mongolia (at the scale of 1:1,000,000). Mineral Resources Authority of Mongolia.
15. Dill, H.G.; S. Altangerel, J. Bulgamaa, O. Hongor, S. Khishigsuren, Yo. Majigsuren, S. Myagmarsuren and C. Heunisch (2004). The Baganuur coal deposit, Mongolia: depositional environments and paleoecology of a Lower Cretaceous coal-bearing intermontane basin in Eastern Asia. International Journal of Coal Geology, volume 60, pages 197-236.
18. Erdev, B.; and B. Munkhtsetseg (2007). Determination outdoor and indoor air radon concentration in buildings of Ulaanbaatar city. International Forum on Strategic Technology held October 2007 in Ulaanbaatar. Proceedings, pages 173-176.
20. Gooding, Tracy (2006). Radon and PFA. Environmental Radon Newsletter #46, Spring Issue, page 2.
23. Guyoncourt, D.M.M.; B.J.B. Crowley and R.M.G. Eeles (2005). Pollution Risks Associated with the Deposition of PFA Slurry into the Radley Lakes. Save Radley Lakes, 23 pages.
37. Zeeb, Hajo; and Ferid Shannoun (editors) (2009). WHO handbook on indoor radon: a public health perspective. 1. Radon - adverse effects. 2. Air pollutants, Radioactive. 3. Air pollution, Indoor. 4. Carcinogens, Environmental. 5. Radiation, Ionizing. 6. Lung neoplasms. 7. Environmental exposure. World Heath Organisation (WHO), Geneva, 95 pages.

Additional References:
*Altangerel, M.; N. Norova and D. Altangerel (2009). Study of Natural Radioactivity in Coal Samples of Baganuur Coal Mine, Mongolia. American Institute of Physics (AIP), Proceedings of the First Ulaanbaatar Conference on Nuclear Physics and Applications, volume 1109, pages 135-138.
*Dalhcuren B.; and colleagues (1995). Determination of heavy metals in the air of the city of Ulan-Bator. Abstracts of 3rd International Meeting of Nuclear Physics for Protection of the Environment¯ (NPPE-95), Dubna, May 1995, page 53.
*Erkhembayar, Ts.; N. Norov, G. Khuukhenkhuu and Ts. Oyunchimeg (2002). Soil and Coal Radioactivity around Zuunmod Town of Mongolia. Proceedings of the 2nd International School on Contemporary Physics, ISCP-2, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 9-19th September 2002, pages 183-188.
*Erdev, B.; and B. Dalkhsuren (2005). Investigations of Radioactivity and Microelements in Atmospheric Air by Nuclear Physical Methods. In: Proceedings of International School on Contemporary Physics-III, ISCP-III, August 08-15th 2005, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; pages 136-139.
*Erdev, B.; Z. Battogtokh and B. Munkhtsetseg (2005). Detection radon concentration in dwellings and working places. Proceedings of International Scientific Conference in Power Industry and Market Economy IFOST, 4-7th May 2005, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, pages 224-230.
*Erdev, B.; and B. Munkhtsetseg (2007). Determination outdoor and indoor air radon concentration in buildings of Ulaanbaatar city. International Forum on Strategic Technology IFOST, held October 2007 in Ulaanbaatar. Proceedings, pages 173-176.
*Ganbold, G.; Sh. Gerbish, S.F. Gundorina, M.V. Frontasyeva, T.M. Ostrovnaya, S.S. Pavlov and Ts. Tsendeekhuu (2005). Atmospheric Deposition of Trace Elements Around Ulan-Bator City Studied by Moss and Lichen Biomonitoring Technique and INA. Communication of the JINR, Dubna, 2005, E18-2005-113, AE18-2005-113, Физик - МУИС-ийн эрдэм шинжилгээний сэтгүүл, 2005, #225(12), volume 10, pages 66-74. http://www1.jinr.ru/Preprints/2005/113(E18-2005-113).pdf
*Gerbish Sh.; G. Ganbold and Ts. Tsendeekhuu (2005). Study of atmospheric deposition using INAA by indicator plants (Lichen and Moss). Proceedings of the International Conference 'Ecosystems of Mongolia and Frontier Areas of Adjacent Countries: Natural Resources, Biodiversity and Ecological Prospects’, 5-9th September 2005, Ulaanbaatar Mongolia, pages 212-214.
*Gerbish, Sh.; G. Ganbold and G. Ganchimeg (2000). Natural Radioactivity of Some Mongolian Building Materials. ‘Research of Environmental Changes’ reports of the Training Workshop, ‘Long Term Ecological Research’ project, Institute of Geoecology, Mongolian Academy of Science, 2000, pages 11-17.
*Gerbish, Sh.; G. Ganbold and G. Ganchimeg (2001). Natural Radioactivity of Some Mongolian Building Materials. Scientific Transactions (Construction & Architecture Corporation, Mongolia), 2002/1, pages 122-128.
*Lodoysamba, S.; D. Shagjjamba and M. Chadraabal (2005). First Results of the Monitoring Study on Ambient Air Quality in the Ulaanbaatar City by Nuclear Techniques. In: Proceedings of International School on Contemporary Physics-III, ISCP-III, 8-15th August 2005, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, pages 146-148.
*Norov, N.; and colleagues (1998). Study of uranium distribution in coal samples. Scientific Transactions of the National University of Mongolian 1998 #4 (137), page 68.
*Oyunchimeg, Ts; N. Norov and G. Kuukhenkhuu (2006). The simple method of emitted radon dose calculation. World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering 2006 “Imaging the Future Medicine”, 27th August - 1st September 2006 COEX Seoul, Korea.
*Oyunchimeg, Ts.; G. Khuukhenkhuu, N. Norov and I. Ajnai (2002). Radon in Mineral Spring Water of Mongolia. Proceedings of the 3rd Korea-Japan Joint Meeting on Medical Physics and the Second Asia Oceania Congress of Medical Physics, September 26-28th 2002, Gyeongju, Korea, pages 279-281; In Book of Abstracts: International School on Contemporary Physics, 9-19th September 2002, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, page 85.
*Shagjjamba, D.; and P. Zuzaan (2006). Results of Radiation level study in some territories of Mongolia. http://wwwinfo.jinr.ru/publish/Pepan_letters/panl_1_2006/09_shagzh.pdf


Fluorosis is a disease aftecting millions of people in China, and one of the causes is coal briquettes made of fluorine-rich clays. Mongolia has time to avoid this risk if studies commence promptly.

Coal briquettes are made either from unsellable coal fragments or from crushing inferior ‘stone coal’ that has high clay content. The powdered material is mixed with a binder such as clay or cement and may be mixed with oil or other calorific supplements. After squeezing in a mould and dried the resultant briquette is a valuable source of fuel for heating homes, buildings and light industries.

Artisanal and small-scale coal briquette factories are found throughout China but are unusual in Mongolia. Such factories are prominent on Google Earth due to the crushed coal carpeting the ground. The largest group of such factories detected on Google Earth are clustered along a 60-kilometre ribbon extending from the Beijing district border through Tumu, Hualiali County to Xuanhua.

While coal briquettes are usually safe, acute health issues can arise. The coal may have very high levels of fluorine that exceeds the safety threshold of 190mg F/kg coal which gives a scientific basis for ascertaining coal-burning endemic fluorosis-affected areas and potential threaten areas [28]. Such briquettes are one cause of fluorosis in China [36]. Even if the coal has low fluorine content, the clay used as binder to make the coal briquette may have very high fluorine levels, and this is a major cause of fluorosis in China [39]. In some regions, coal is rich in arsenic and such briquettes are one cause of arsenism in China [29].

28. Li, Yonghua; Wuyi Wang, Linsheng Yang and Hairong Li (2003). Environmental epidemic characteristics of coal-burning endemic fluorosis and the safety threshold of coal fluoride in China - Research Report. Fluoride, volume 36, pages 106-111.
29. Liu, Jie; Baoshan Zheng, H. Vasken Aposhian, Yunshu Zhou, Ming-Liang Chen, Aihua Zhang and Michael Waalkes (2002). Chronic arsenic poisoning from burning high-arsenic-containing coal in Guizhou, China.
36. Wu G-S. (1986). Fluorosis with smoke pollution from burning coal. China Journal of Epidemiology, volume 4, pages 267-269.
39. Zheng, Baoshan; Aimin Wang, Qixing Lu and Robert Finkelman (2006). Endemic fluorosis and high-F clay. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, volume 70, Supplement #1, page A744.

Arshad Sayed
April 29, 2010

Robin, when the person who maintains the blog, saw your post, she wrote to me to say "there is another post. However before you look at the post, you might want to go grab a coffee". I think, a coffee would not do in this case!!

In reading the excellent comments you shared, a few things for us to think through:

(a) we would need to establish how serious a problem RADON really is.

(b) If it is needed a serious problem, to what extent is the problem of RADON known to the authorities? Especially if as you suggest a number of Russian and Mongolian scientists have been doing research already; And why havent they acted on it? or if they are is it sufficient?
(c) What levels of health risk are posed in different dwelling types and situations by the RADON emissions?

(d) in doing the RADON assessments what is the size of the sample that would make sense and how much would that cost?

Hopefully we can get other development partners involved in this effort as well.

PB Anand
May 14, 2010

Arshad and colleagues,

Thank you for these excellent postings. We are currently working on the National Human Developemnt Report for Mongolia where urban air pollution is one of the issues being touched on. One of our colleagues Dr Saijaa is working on this topic, especially looking at health impacts. Apart from the points you have already made, his analysis also suggests that in winter months sulphur dioxide levels also go up very significantly. The standard for SO2 I am told is 20 micro grams per cubic metre and this is apparently exceeded from November to February. Some correlation is also observed between air pollution levels and incidence of respiratory disease burden. (Results apply to morbidity only; no significant relationship is noticed between pollution levels and mortality due to related causes.)

We were not aware of the RADON issue. We will explore that a bit further. We will be delighted to share if we find anything of course.

Great post. Thanks.

June 24, 2010

Hello Arshad, I am a soon-to-be U.S. Fulbright student who will be coming to Ulaanbaatar in March 2011 to study air pollution in UB. I found this blog entry in a web search, and wondered if you had any contacts of those that are studying air pollution at UB that you could provide me with. Thanks for any info you can provide!

Arshad Sayed
June 30, 2010


I have just responded to you via email as well. I am out of Mongolia and traveling with the family. However, my colleagues will be glad to help you. And all the best with your research.

Arshad Sayed
June 30, 2010

Anand, as you know the UN is considering declaring Air-Pollution in UB as a security risk for residents. I hope hte HDR will take account of the seriousness of this issue on well being of the residents.

October 18, 2010

I am Mongolian and I am concerned about the city's pollution. in addition, I am studying as a graduate student in Public health School of UC Berkeley and learning a lot about the health impacts of air pollution. In my risk assessment class, two other classmates and I are working on project that is about Coal and Wood burning stove and health impacts (indoor air quality) in Ulaanbaatar city. We're hoping to publish in Mongolia later when we finish this study.

In my opinion, we all know that polluted air is bad and causes all kind of serious diseases, morbidity and mortality. So now what we need to regulate and improve the air laws.

Thank you for reading this.

Yuma Damdinsuren

MPH Student EHS 2011
Public Health School
UC Berkeley

December 04, 2010

Hello Arshad
We can see the real situation from your this post. As you said, winter is already returned back, so I guess its still the same as usual, perhaps worse than before. Thank you for letting us be aware of the truth.
By the way, I am Mongolian as well and I study in China now as a researcher. I've started to research about air quality, particularly I want to make forecasting of UB air pollution. It's because, of course all we are concerned about that bad condition to live. And I really want to provide the public with the news to make them know the dangers of those pollution for next day. I hope it will contribute to reduce air pollution at UB if I successfully finished my study.
I've found this post in a web search, and I am glad, cause probably I will find someone who is studying air pollution issue at UB. Could you send me some contacts of those guys, if you have time and if it's possible, please? Because now I really need to know how to formulate the model with the surroundings.
Thank you in advance.

Great post, thanks.

Crispin Pemberton-Pigott
February 24, 2011

Very interesting subject of course. Much work has been done on this subject in South Africa where the ash content of domestic coal if far higher than Nalaikh, for example. Nalaikh provides about 60% of domestic coal in UB.

My point about SO2 is that it is an inherent emission, like uranium or thorium. If you burn less, you get less. Thus the thermal efficiency of the stoves is critical. Also, if a stove burns more constantly at a lower power, it feels the same to the occupant. This means a 5 kW stove that burns continuously feels the same as a 25 kW stove that roars then dies out rapidly. Recent developments on this score are very positive.

It is possible to greatly reduce the amount of coal burned per ger-dweller with better stove technologies as has been demonstrated at the Stove Emissions and Efficiency Testing Laboratory in UB (SEET Lab).

It is critical that those getting involved in stove emissions gain some depth before jumping in with advice about which emissions are dangerous and which are more dangerous. It is sometimes not obvious: If a stove produces 'lower SO2' it usually means it is making H2S instead which is the 'stink' of coal. It is caused by poor combustion of Sulphur. It is not usual to measure H2S in air quality assessments and major errors in technology selection can be made as a result. Perfect combustion produces SO2 not H2S. Nalaikh (in fact all Mongolian coals) have a very low Sulphur content which is a big plus. That is why people want to export it. Power stations scrub it out and sell it.

Non-inherent emissions include the particulate matter(PM)produced by stoves which is a consequence of poor combustion, not coal composition, despite what is often said. PM we can do someting about. Stoves are now in use in UB that have 1/1000th of the PM emissions of a poor conditon traditional stove operated in a traditional manner. However the SO2 per kg may go up! This is because of the conversion of really dangerous H2S to much less dangerous SO2. The view must be holistic, as wisely stated above by Robin. Management of risk means all risks, not 'popular' ones.

So, using a stove that uses 50% less coal, burned with >90% less PM makes a very big difference to the air quality problem.

For those who want to look into the Radon problem (I thought it had been examined by NUM?) please keep two things in mind about the ger dwellers exposure. The air changes per hour rating for a ger is 50 ac/h - a gigantic turnover. A stove also pulls into the home about 50-100 cubic metres per hour and sends it up the chimney. This is a large and continuous ventilation often overlooked.

I would like the conversation to include more numbers for exposure as tha above is pretty theoretical. There are people in UB who are well versed on this including the staff at NRC at NUM. The ac/h is very high by any standard. The experience of dealing with radon in Port Hope Ontario, Canada (major radon event) shows that ventilation (heat exchanging air ducting) reduces the exposure to international standards. A ger is very breezy all the time and most people overlook the stove as a ventilator. In winter the stove takes in more air and that air comes from the ger which comes from outside! Air quality inside the ger is reduced by outside air pulled in! The situation is that bad.

I look forward to comparisons of modern buildings to gers. Concrete is radioactive at some level, particularly the aggregate. Granite is radioactive too...

Contact via ADB-UB.

Claudia Gabarain
February 24, 2011

Dear Crispin and other commenters,

Arshad Sayed left the Bank a few months ago, so he won't be able to follow up on your comments to his initial post. However, we do see the interest on this issue, so let us see if someone else in the Bank's Mongolia team would be fit to pick it up and keep it going. Cheers and thanks for your comments,

-- Claudia
Blog admin

March 01, 2012

Pls review below video for mongolia...


October 12, 2013

Hi there, just thought I'd let you know there is a air pollution study (primarily for children in ger districts) project in Ulanbaatar which was originally to be funded by Red Cross but was canned last minute. The volunteers are still trying to secure funding for the project to go ahead via a kickstarter/crowdfunding website:
Spread the word if you know anyone who is interested in seeing this project to completion. The kickstarter / crowdfunding deadline is within the next 9 days.