ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA — Soot and ash bloom from the stove as Sukhbaatar Jizaabandi pounds it with a hammer. Dust crowds the air, caught in sunlight that spills through a window. Hands gloved, Sukhbaatar shovels the soot into a bucket.
On the surface, Sukhbaatar’s work as a government-hired chimney sweep seems like a prosaic necessity in a country where stoves are often the center of the home.
Yet to thousands, he and his colleagues are lifesavers.
That’s because, in clearing ash and soot, Sukhbaatar protects Ulaanbaatar residents from deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.
That 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 unleashed 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 broader campaign to combat pollution in a country whose air ranks among the dirtiest in the world. Ulaanbaatar’s air is the most polluted in the country.
Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg, GPJ Mongolia
For decades, Mongolians used unprocessed coal in stoves during Mongolia’s long, legendary winters, when temperatures can bottom out at minus 45 degrees Celsius (minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit).
The cheap coal came at a high cost: The country’s air grew so foul that it contributed to heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and other illnesses.
Starting in May 2019, Mongolians had to buy a refined charcoal that was odorless and smokeless.
Within a month, the deaths occurred, and another 273 people suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. The number of carbon monoxide deaths in October 2019 nearly matched the total for all of 2018.
Officials blamed the deaths in part on families who didn’t sweep their chimneys properly. So the government ultimately teamed up with a private company to hire more than 1,600 people to clean and inspect stoves.
As of mid-August, the chimney sweeps had worked in over 28,400 households.
Prior to becoming a chimney sweep, Sukhbaatar, 56, had no steady work. Pale, short and thin, he says he took the job in part because it provides a reliable government salary of 800,000 Mongolian tugriks ($281) per month.
“It’s easy because I have experience making stoves,” says Sukhbaatar, a married father of three. “I didn’t know the chimneys were so dirty.”
In Ulaanbaatar, tens of thousands of residents live in yurts, mostly in the city’s ger areas, the poorest in the capital. A traditional Mongolian home, yurts are domed structures with wooden frames covered in felt and cloth. Usually measuring 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) end to end, most yurts are warmed by a stove.
Working in teams, chimney sweeps and inspectors visit households to study the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Not everyone is welcoming: Byambaa Sundel, who lives in Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar district, says the government program shows that young people today are so privileged that they cannot clean their own chimneys.
“What a waste [of money]!” he says.
The chimney sweeps and inspectors cover four to five houses per day. Most households are happy to see Sukhbaatar and his colleagues, and some homeowners even help them do their work.
The teams toil from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and by the end of the day, they are blanketed in soot.
Ulziibayar Barkhuu, inspection engineer at Tavan Tolgoi Tulsh LLC, the government’s partner company, says sometimes chimney sweeps and inspectors must make emergency house calls in the middle of the night.
The company receives calls at a special telephone number and supplies chimney sweep services upon request. More than 33,000 people have called.
Battsengel Tsedendamba, 50, used the service after two bouts 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 trouble with chimney smoke or coal, she says.
Suddenly, she awoke choking. Just as she was calling a nurse, she noticed that her children, ages 8 to 22, were all unconscious.
Everyone received medical treatment and fully recovered. “I think it’s God’s destiny for me and my children that they didn’t die of asphyxiation,” she says.
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Then, in February 2020, Battsengel again suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Again, she recovered. So in October 2020, as winter descended and her family fired up the stove, she called in a chimney sweep.
“I don’t think there’s any problem now that the chimney has been [cleaned] out,” she says.
Damdinbazar Batbuyan, 46, called the service in September. Married with two children, he teaches chess out of his home. He had not cleaned his chimney since burning the new refined fuel.
Before the chimney sweep visited, smoke sometimes poured out of 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 falls far short of a comprehensive plan to curb Mongolia’s pollution crisis.
“Mongolia has not taken long-term measures to reduce [air pollution],” says activist Purevkhuu Tserendorj, head of the nongovernmental organization Parents Against Smog. “We can’t just keep refining coal.”
Tsolmon Tsogbadrakh, head of policy and coordination at Ulaanbaatar’s Air Pollution Control Department, says Mongolia does have a long-term plan to reduce air pollution, including improving infrastructure and construction in the ger areas.
“We are implementing a national program to reduce air pollution, and we are working on it step by step,” he says. He also says that in the next four to six years, Mongolia will reduce emissions with improved fuels.
Officials have so far declined to say if anyone has died of carbon monoxide poisoning since September, which is when Mongolians started using their stoves again.
All Battsengel knows is that the service saved her and her family. “Professional chimney sweepers have worked very well. [They] protect many people,” she says. “Like us.”
Nansalmaa Oyunchimeg is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.
Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.