Chimney sweeps attack deadly pollution crisis

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ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA — Soot and ash spurt from the stove as Sukhbaatar Jizaabandi pounded it with a hammer. Dust fills the air, caught by sunlight streaming through a window. Gloved hands, Sukhbaatar shovels the soot into a bucket.

At first glance, Sukhbaatar’s job as a government-hired chimney sweep seems like a prosaic necessity in a country where stoves are often the center of the home.

Yet for thousands of people, he and his colleagues are saving lives.

Indeed, by removing ash and soot, Sukhbaatar protects the people of Ulaanbaatar from deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.

This was the tragic lesson of 2019, after the Mongolian government decided to reduce air pollution by banning the burning of raw coal. But the change sparked a new problem, as the use of new refined charcoal led to carbon monoxide poisoning that killed eight people in a month.

Since then, the government has hired hundreds of chimney sweeps to prevent a recurrence as part of a wider campaign to tackle pollution in a country whose air ranks among the dirtiest in the world. The air in Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted in the country.

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Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ Mongolia

Battumur Dagvadorj and Sukhbaatar Jizaabandi, rising through the ranks, arrive at their last home for the day as part of a government initiative to clean chimneys and reduce carbon monoxide poisoning.

For decades, the Mongols have used unprocessed coal in stoves during Mongolia’s legendary long winters, when temperatures can reach minus 45 degrees Celsius (minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit).

Cheap coal was expensive: the country’s air became so foul that it contributed to heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and other illnesses.

From May 2019, Mongols had to buy refined, odorless and smokeless charcoal.

Within a month, deaths occurred and another 273 people were poisoned with carbon monoxide. The number of carbon monoxide-related deaths in October 2019 nearly matched the total for all of 2018.

Officials have partly blamed the deaths on families who failed to properly sweep their chimneys. So the government eventually partnered with a private company to hire over 1,600 people to clean and inspect the stoves.

By mid-August, chimney sweeps had worked in more than 28,400 households.

Before becoming a chimney sweep, Sukhbaatar, 56, had no stable job. Pale, short and thin, he says he took the job in part because he provides a reliable government salary of 800,000 Mongolian tugriks ($281) a month.

“It’s easy because I have experience making stoves,” says Sukhbaatar, who is married with three children. “I didn’t know chimneys were so dirty.”

In Ulaanbaatar, tens of thousands of residents live in yurts, mostly in the city’s gers, the poorest in the capital. A traditional Mongolian home, yurts are domed structures with wooden frames covered in felt and fabric. Usually measuring 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) end to end, most yurts are heated by a stove.

Working as a team, chimney sweeps and inspectors visit households to investigate the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Not everyone is welcoming: Byambaa Sundel, who lives in Sukhbaatar district of Ulaanbaatar, says the government program shows young people today are so privileged they cannot clean their own fireplaces.

“Such a waste [of money]!” he says.

Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ Mongolia

Inspector Battumur Dagvadorj, in blue, and chimney sweep Sukhbaatar Jizaabandi extract the soot with a ladle and put it in a bucket. Then they’ll take it to a dump. They also use their cell phones to take pictures of each stove.

Chimney sweeps and inspectors look after four to five houses a day. Most households are happy to see Sukhbaatar and his colleagues, and some owners even help them with their work.

Crews toil from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and at the end of the day they are covered in soot.

Ulziibayar Barkhuu, inspection engineer at Tavan Tolgoi Tulsh LLC, the government’s partner company, says sometimes chimney sweeps and inspectors have to make emergency house calls in the middle of the night.

The company receives calls at a special telephone number and provides sweeping services on request. More than 33,000 people called.

Battsengel Tsedendamba, 50, used the service after two episodes of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In October 2019, she was at home asleep in the two-story house she had occupied for 17 years. She had never had a problem with chimney smoke or coal, she said.

Suddenly she woke up suffocated. As she called a nurse, she noticed that her children, aged 8 to 22, were all unconscious.

Everyone received medical attention and made a full recovery. “I think it’s God’s destiny for me and my children that they don’t suffocate to death,” she said.

Then, in February 2020, Battsengel was again poisoned with carbon monoxide. Again, she recovered. So, in October 2020, when winter was coming and her family was lighting the stove, she called in a chimney sweep.

“I don’t think there is a problem now that the chimney has been [cleaned] out,” she said.

Damdinbazar Batbuyan, 46, called the service in September. Married with two children, he teaches chess from home. He hadn’t cleaned his chimney since he had burned the new refined fuel.

Before the chimney sweep’s visit, smoke sometimes billowed from his stove, he says, but that no longer happens. And he says he now uses three times less fuel.

Critics of the chimney-sweeping campaign say it is far from a comprehensive plan to stem Mongolia’s pollution crisis.

“Mongolia has not taken long-term measures to reduce [air pollution]says activist Purevkhuu Tserendorj, head of the non-governmental organization Parents Against Smog. “We can’t keep refining coal.”

Tsolmon Tsogbadrakh, head of policy and coordination at Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution control department, said Mongolia has a long-term plan to reduce air pollution, including improving infrastructure and construction. in ger areas.

“We are implementing a national air pollution reduction program, and we are working on it step by step,” he said. He also says that over the next four to six years, Mongolia will reduce emissions through improved fuels.

Authorities have so far declined to say whether anyone has died of carbon monoxide poisoning since September, when Mongols started using their stoves again.

All Battsengel knows is that the service saved her and her family. “The professional chimney sweeps did a very good job. [They] protect many people,” she says. “Like us.”

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