ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Oyuka dresses for domestic battle. Mask. Gloves. Hair shrouded under a black hood. A disposable white gown reminiscent of a surgeon. It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday; her husband is at work and their two young children are at school. She shoves the oven, freezer and washing machine away from the kitchen walls and grabs a lime-green spray can from behind the bathtub, where it’s out of the children’s reach. “Magic Cleaner,” the bottle says in Chinese. A pesticide.
Oyuka — who asked to be referred to only by her nickname, out of fear of being criticized by her neighbors — lives on the eighth floor of a 10-story building in Erdenet, Mongolia’s second-largest city, where towering apartments cram together like subway riders. Lots of people means lots of trash, which means lots and lots of bugs. Cockroaches. Bedbugs. Centipedes. And what Mongolians call black bugs, speck-like insects that Oyuka fears will bite her children and make them sick. Over the past year, Oyuka started noticing them in corners, under furniture, on windowsills. She increased how often she sprayed Magic Cleaner, from occasionally to every three months — even though the smell makes her stomach lurch. “Because I don’t know any other good poison, I use this poison often,” she says.
There was a time when the Mongolian government coordinated twice-yearly pesticide sprayings of public housing and other buildings around the country, as well as residential basements and forests. During the coronavirus pandemic, officials and private companies halted these efforts; eventually, the insects returned.
Mongolians resorted to spraying their own homes. But, inexperienced in personal pest management, many used store-bought pesticides incorrectly — the instructions are rarely in Mongolian — and allowed the bugs to cheat death.
Public health officials blame the national infestation, in part, for a spike in hand, foot and mouth disease, a viral infection that causes fever, sores and rashes. The virus spreads through bodily secretions; bugs can serve as a taxi for infected saliva or feces to zip through a house. In 2021, the National Center for Communicable Diseases of Mongolia reported 137 cases. The following year, 1,847. Pests have also helped fuel an uptick in cases of viral gastroenteritis, which spreads in a similar manner and causes vomiting and diarrhea.
Batgerel Dondov is an official with the General Agency of Specialized Inspection, which oversees national extermination efforts. He says the government plans to revive the pest-killing program in the coming months. The program will operate as before, with the government coordinating the efforts of private companies to spray multi-family buildings, as well as individual homes and institutions that request and pay for the service. Batgerel believes that if regular disinfection is carried out as before, the number of nesting pests will decrease.
Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia
However, many Mongolians are satisfied with self-extermination. Why pay up to 20,000 Mongolian togrog (6 United States dollars) for one professional extermination when Magic Cleaner costs 30,000 togrog (9 dollars) and can be used up to six times?
“I think it is better to buy a whole bottle and spray it three or four times, so that pests disappear,” says Saranchuluun Galbadrakh, a resident of Khurenbulag bagh of Erdenet city.
“They collect money to exterminate pests and spray pesticides, but they are not completely gone. You never know if they sprayed it or not,” says Munkhtulga Dambiinyambuu, a resident of Sogoot bagh in Erdenet city.
But store sprays carry risks. Mongolia imports a few dozen available pesticides from China and Russia, and many don’t contain instructions in Mongolian. This makes it easy for people to mix up, for example, whether a spray is for indoor or outdoor use. And when applied incorrectly, they can cause insects to multiply instead of being exterminated.
Batgerel, whose agency also oversees consumer goods, says it’s impractical for officials to translate and post instructions for each pesticide. “Just by looking at the picture, you get a glimpse of what it can be used for,” he says. He suggests people do their own research before buying a spray. But that’s tough when some stores market pesticides that aren’t state-approved and of questionable provenance — and customers are faced with homes teeming with bugs.
Oyuka buys Magic Cleaner at a home goods store. She can’t read the instructions, which are in Chinese and English, but a salesperson recommended it. With minimal official guidance, she guesses as to what precautions to take, such as donning protective gear and waiting to spray until her children, ages 8 and 4, aren’t home. In her kitchen, she crouches toward the floor and presses the bottle’s nozzle. A stench chokes the room. “Isn’t it a horribly strong and awful smell?” she says. She opens the windows. “If we can’t get rid of the smell quickly, it usually causes headache and nausea.” Bug repellent dispensed, she tosses her disposable gown in the trash.
Budkhuu Gongor, a doctor at the National Center for Communicable Diseases, says self-managed extermination like Oyuka’s could lead to poisoning. “Some people spray pesticides at home for the sake of their health, but they put themselves at risk.” Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, red and itchy eyes, coughing and sneezing, and rashes on the body.
“To fully exterminate pests quickly, it is important for people to work with us and have pesticides sprayed by professional agencies, not by themselves,” says Ch. Unenbat, executive director of the Mongolian Association for Disinfection and Rodent Control, which represents about 80 extermination companies.
Batgerel agrees, and mentions how complex it can be to exterminate insects in certain cases. “A family that had been living in our building for 30 years went abroad for three months. When they got home, they had a lot of cockroaches nesting behind their kitchen furniture,” he says. “We did two disinfections while they had to relocate. [In the end], the family completely replaced the kitchen furniture. That’s how the cockroaches were completely destroyed.”
But Oyuka doesn’t plan on hiring expensive professional services soon. “After spraying insecticides, the insects are gone. So, I think it is effective,” she says.
When she removed a small piece of furniture away from the wall in her kitchen to spray pesticide, Oyuka found a dead mouse. She was instantly shocked and jumped, shouting, “Wow, what’s this?”
As she sprays pesticide in the corner, she mumbles, “I sprayed pesticide here two months ago. Maybe it is a mouse that got poisoned and died since then. How can even mice come to our place?”