For children and babies, the pollution in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar can prove fatal

Buildings disappearing in the smog in Ulaanbaatar, January 2018. Image: Getty.

There is a famous poem which almost every Mongolian knows by heart. It goes: 

Dung smoke pouring forth
I was born in a herder’s home
On the wilderness steppe
I think of my native land

But the days that Mongolians were born in a herder’s home with the smell of dung smoke have long since passed. Nowadays, most Mongolians are born with the acrid smell of coal smoke in their nostrils.  

Even just hearing the word “winter”, my throat starts to hurt.  During wintertime, Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar becomes one of the most polluted cities in the world, as thick smog from coal power stations and coal-burning stoves blankets the freezing streets.

This year the air seems worse than ever, and as the temperatures plummeted and the streets began to fill with smog, I started to wonder – what must this seasonal torture be like for mothers with babies and young children? What kind of worries must fill their minds, when they see their city start to resemble a smoke-filled warzone?

The physical impacts of breathing such polluted air are well known, and are especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children: lower birth weight, impaired brain function, damaged lungs, premature births and stillbirths. And according to UNICEF, pneumonia is now the second most common cause of death for Mongolian children under 5, killing hundreds of babies and toddlers every year.

I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be a young mother trying to cope with Ulaanbataar’s air crisis – so I spoke to two mothers who could tell me.

Money worries and placebo purifiers

The first was 25-year-old Gerel, currently living with her 11-month-old baby and her husband in one of Ulaanbataar’s most polluted districts. She feels helpless in the face of months of smog and smoke, and worries she can’t afford to protect her family. “There’s no way to reduce the air pollution outside, so I bought an air purifier for our house,” she said. “But good air purifiers are very expensive. My husband and I can’t rely on our parents financially, so we live off only our own salaries. But now only my husband works because I have to take care of my baby. So we had to buy a cheaper Chinese air purifier.”

She admitted that the purifier was more for peace of mind than any noticeable health impact. “Personally I don’t feel the difference of having the air purifier or not, but it makes me feel happier to have it on,” she said. “I also bought an air pollution mask with filters for my son. He really doesn’t like it. He keeps trying to take it off, and he gets very upset wearing it. But that’s very expensive for us too, because you have to change the filters all the time.”

Sarnai, the second mother I interviewed, is 35. She lives with her husband and three children, and manages her own small business. “The best I can do is to keep the air in our home clean, take my kids out of the city on weekends and stay out of the city during summer holidays,” she said. “But it’s so expensive.”

“I saw on Twitter that mothers go abroad during winter. But it’s impossible for us to go abroad during winter. My oldest child goes to school. What am I going to do about their school? Somehow I have to try to survive in Mongolia.”

To breathe or to leave: that is the question

Gerel chose to leave the city to give birth, hoping to protect her newborn son from early exposure to pollution. She plans to return to her parents’ place in the countryside in the winter, but worries about the impact on her marriage.

“I think a family should stay together, so I don’t stay in the countryside for too long,” she said. “It’s hard to stay apart after being married with promises of living together, facing any challenges and raising our baby together. Being apart is hard for both me and my husband. It’s also hard for the kids who grow up without their dads’ care.”

Being separated from her husband isn’t just emotionally challenging – it imposes financial costs, too. “When I stay in the countryside, my husband visits sometimes – he takes a train on Friday night and arrives the next morning, stays on Saturday and heads back to the city on Sunday. But it’s tiring for my husband and costs us so much.”

For Sarnai, separating her family was too much. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to take my kids out of the city and leave my husband and my oldest child behind. If it’s really hurting their health, I would do it to save my children’s life. But my husband should also acknowledge his responsibility as a father. I want us to raise our kids together.”


Black lungs, broken hearts

Since giving birth, Gerel has found herself increasingly frightened by the severity of Mongolia’s pollution. “We just don’t know what will happen to our kids’ lungs in the future. It’s scary. I didn’t used to care so much about air pollution when I was single - I used to complain about my throat hurting, but that was it. But now I worry about how my son’s lungs are, how the pollution is affecting his body.”

Mothers in Ulaanbaatar have come together online to discuss their fears, but for Gerel it doesn’t always help. “I know that mothers share their stresses or worries on mothers’ groups on Facebook… the group that I am in now is very active. But my biggest fear is the screenshots on the posts that mothers make,” – like pictures of lungs turned black from coal dust.

Sarnai also frequently shared her pollution worries with friends and family on Facebook. But that, she said, is relatively unusual. “Many Mongolians aren’t able to identify their own mental issues, or own up that something is making them stressed,” she said. “We have this attitude that no one should admit that they have problems. We’re just polishing ourselves on the outside.”

Sarnai worries that her children’s future is bleak. “What’s dangerous about this air pollution is that the consequences aren’t even known at the moment,” she says.  “I think our kids will gradually become worse at studying and focusing. It’s really sad to think that the impacts of air pollution will live with our future generations for years. It‘s heartbreaking.”

“I want to run away from Mongolia,” she says. “But I don’t know where to.”

A social movement for change?

Sometimes, it feels like our city is under the spell of a furious dragon, spewing smoke and ash. But if air pollution is the dragon, the question becomes - who will defeat this monster? Should we sit and wait for a “hero” with a muscular body, a sharp wit, and a lightning-fast horse to save us? Or should we try to find a way by ourselves?

In the late 19thand early 20th century, London was notorious for its thick smog. Caused by the mass burning of coal for power and heat, the smog reached disastrous levels in December 1952, killing up to 12,000 people and hospitalizing thousands more. In response to public pressure, the “Clean Air Act” was passed in 1956, forcing homes and businesses to reduce coal use and accelerating the uptake of clean fuels. By 1980, air pollution in London had fallen by 80%.

The city of London was saved by social movement, scientific pressure, effective policies, and the cooperation of civilians and government. But who is going to save Ulaanbaatar? Air pollution is a complex problem which demands everyone’s participation. Governments will not change the law without public pressure, and laws alone will not create the social change required to make coal pollution history. There have been anti-pollution protests in Ulaanbaatar, but as Sarnai pointed out, too many Mongolians still don’t want to admit how scared they are.

*Names have been changed throughout. 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.