PMCCPMCCPMCC

Search tips
Search criteria 

Advanced

 
Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
 
Environ Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2014 June 3.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC4043223
NIHMSID: NIHMS578547

Environmental pollution in Mongolia: Effects across the lifespan

Mongolia has undergone rapid urbanization and significant economic expansion since 1991, when the country emerged from Soviet domination. It is a vast country mostly comprising open steppe, desert and mountain ranges and in the open country is one of the cleanest places on earth. However, Ulaanbaatar, the capital city lies on a high altitude plateau in a bowl surrounded by mountains, which in the winter months is subject to atmospheric inversion. The population of Ulaanbaatar is just over 1 million, about 40% of whom live in apartment homes, while the remaining 60% still live in the traditional nomadic round felt tents called Gers or houses in surrounding ger areas. Because of the extremely cold temperatures in the winter months (−40 °F is a common daily low), heating is a major issue. Most Gers and houses in ger areas in Ulaanbaatar are heated by burning coal in traditional Ger stoves, which are actually designed to burn Yak dung or wood out on the Steppe. Air pollution has recently become a very serious public health problem in Ulaanbaatar with ground level air pollution, measured in terms of particulate matter (PM), >200 times WHO safety guidelines. Measurements carried out in Ulaanbaatar from November 17 to 28 have shown a maximum daily concentration of 600 µg/m3 (PM10) and 350 µg/m3 (PM2.5) with maximum hourly concentrations exceeding 1300 (PM2.5) and 2500 (PM10) µg/m3. These levels vastly exceed the Mongolian target average daily concentrations of 50 (PM2.5) and 100 (PM10) µg/m3.

We measured markedly (3-fold) elevated ambient and expired carbon monoxide (CO) levels in Mongolian school children in the summer months in Ulaanbaatar, compared to school children studied in a rural Aimag on the open steppe (Dashdendev et al., 2011). Importantly the lung function of the children on the steppe was significantly better than those living in Ulaanbaatar. So we concluded that the level of urban air pollution in the capital city is clearly having an adverse impact on the pulmonary health of urban Mongolian children. Since the Ger stove is not needed for heating in the summer months, we speculated that the summer pollution relates more to vehicular emissions. Vehicular traffic has increased dramatically throughout Mongolia, but particularly in Ulaanbaatar over the last decade. Many of these privately owned vehicles are second hand models that lack catalytic converters.

We speculate that this level of urban pollution in winter and summer is adversely affecting the pulmonary as well as other aspects of health of the Mongolian population across the lifespan. However, because >50% of the Mongolian population is under 25 years of age, the impact will disproportionately fall upon children and young women of child bearing age. Similar patterns of adverse health risk such as asthma, obesity and autism in proximity to freeways and major roads have previously been well documented by us and our colleagues in Los Angeles, CA.

In this issue of Environmental Research, collaborating public health researchers from Taiwan and Mongolia correlated SO2 and NO2 levels in Ulaanbaatar with land use patterns. They conclude that SO2 and NO2 concentrations are very high in Ulaanbaatar, especially in the winter, and that this can be explained by several land use variables, including proximity to the Ger areas, the city center, the main roads, and the city power plants, which lie upwind. These findings are a productive step towards identifying sources of air pollutants that can be targeted for regulatory interventions.

There is therefore clearly an urgent need for environmental health research and implementation of an air pollution reduction program in Mongolia. This need has been increasingly recognized in recent years in position papers by the Mongolian Government and the Mongolian scientific community, wherein the respiratory environmental health cost of pollution has been conservatively estimated as 4% of GDP.

Some preliminary successes in policy implementation were funded by the Millennium Challenge Account for the distribution of 20,000 modern, efficient heating and cooking stoves for Gers. This is a step in the right direction, however, much more remains to be done to understand the dimensions of the pollution problem in Ulaanbaatar and to abate vehicular, industrial and domestic pollution levels back to the pristine steppe it once was.

Acknowledgments

D.W., F.G. and B.D. are funded by NIH Grant 1 D43 ES022862-01A1: Environmental and Respiratory Health Across the Lifespan in Mongolia; a chronic, non-communicable diseases and disorders across the lifespan: Fogarty International Research and Training Award (NCD-Lifespan DE43) co-funded with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

References

  • Dashdendev B, Fukushima LK, Woo MS, Ganbaatar E, Warburton D. Carbon monoxide pollution and lung function in urban compared with rural Mongolian children. Respirology. 2011 May;6(4):653–658. [PubMed]
  • Breton CV, Salam MT, Wang X, Byun HM, Siegmund KD, Gilliland FD. Particulate matter, DNA methylation in nitric oxide synthase, and childhood respiratory disease. Environ. Health Perspect. 2012 Sep;120(9):1320–1306. Epub 2012 May 16. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Eckel SP, Berhane K, Salam MT, Rappaport EB, Linn WS, Bastain TM, Zhang Y, Lurmann F, Avol EL, Gilliland FD. Residential traffic-related pollution exposures and exhaled nitric oxide in the children's health study. Environ. Health Perspect. 2011 Oct;119(10):1472–1477. Epub 2011 June 27. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Berhane K, Zhang Y, Linn WS, Rappaport EB, Bastain TM, Salam MT, Islam T, Lurmann F, Gilliland FD. The effect of ambient air pollution on exhaled nitric oxide in the Children's Health Study. Eur. Respir. J. 2011 May;37(5):1029–1036. Epub 2010 October 14. [PubMed]
  • McConnell R, Islam T, Shankardass K, Jerrett M, Lurmann F, Gilliland F, Gauderman J, Avol E, Künzli N, Yao L, Peters J, Berhane K. Childhood incident asthma and traffic-related air pollution at home and school. Environ. Health Perspect. 2010 Jul;118(7):1021–1026. Epub 2010 March 22. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Bastain TM, Islam T, Berhane KT, McConnell RS, Rappaport EB, Salam MT, Linn WS, Avol EL, Zhang Y, Gilliland FD. Exhaled nitric oxide, susceptibility and new-onset asthma in the Children's Health Study. Eur. Respir. J. 2011 Mar;37(3):523–531. Epub 2010 July 15. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Künzli N, Jerrett M, Garcia-Esteban R, Basagaña X, Beckermann B, Gilliland F, Medina M, Peters J, Hodis HN, Mack WJ. Ambient air pollution and the progression of atherosclerosis in adults. PLoS One. 2010 Feb 8;5(2):e9096. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2010;5 (3). Doi:10.1371/annotation/21f6b02b-e533-46ca-9356-86a0eef8434e. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Jerrett M, McConnell R, Chang CC, Wolch J, Reynolds K, Lurmann F, Gilliland F, Berhane K. Automobile traffic around the home and attained body mass index: a longitudinal cohort study of children aged 10–18 years. Prev. Med. 2010 Jan;50(Suppl. 1):S50–S58. Epub 2009 October 20. [PubMed]
  • Gilliland FD. Outdoor air pollution, genetic susceptibility, and asthma management: opportunities for intervention to reduce the burden of asthma. Pediatrics. 2009 Mar;123(Suppl. 3):S168–S173. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Jerrett M, Shankardass K, Berhane K, Gauderman WJ, Künzli N, Avol E, Gilliland F, Lurmann F, Molitor JN, Molitor JT, Thomas DC, Peters J, McConnell R. Traffic-related air pollution and asthma onset in children: a prospective cohort study with individual exposure measurement. Environ. Health Perspect. 2008 Oct;116(10):1433–1438. Epub 2008 June 18. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Salam MT, Islam T, Gilliland FD. Recent evidence for adverse effects of residential proximity to traffic sources on asthma. Curr. Opin. Pulm. Med. 2008 Jan;14(1):3–8. Review. [PubMed]
  • Islam T, Gauderman WJ, Berhane K, McConnell R, Avol E, Peters JM, Gilliland FD. Relationship between air pollution, lung function and asthma in adolescents. Thorax. 2007 Nov;62(11):957–963. Epub 2007 May 21. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Gauderman WJ, Vora H, McConnell R, Berhane K, Gilliland F, Thomas D, Lurmann F, Avol E, Kunzli N, Jerrett M, Peters J. Effect of exposure to traffic on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age: a cohort study. Lancet. 2007 Feb 17;369(9561):571–577. [PubMed]
  • Gauderman WJ, Avol E, Lurmann F, Kuenzli N, Gilliland F, Peters J, McConnell R. Childhood asthma and exposure to traffic and nitrogen dioxide. Epidemiology. 2005 Nov;16(6):737–743. [PubMed]
  • Künzli N, McConnell R, Bates D, Bastain T, Hricko A, Lurmann F, Avol E, Gilliland F, Peters J. Breathless in Los Angeles: the exhausting search for clean air. Am. J. Public Health. 2003 Sep;93(9):1494–1499. [PubMed]