The ‘White Dust’ Blanketing Mining Towns in Northern Mongolia: It’s in People’s Lungs. It’s in Children’s Blood.

The mining industry is a vital part of Mongolia’s economy. But people living near one of the country’s largest copper mines say their health is suffering, and scientists and doctors are sounding the alarm.

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White dust rises in the air near the residential area of Govil in Erdenet, Orkhon province. Video by Bilguun Munkhjargal for Global Press Journal

ERDENET, ORKHON PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Delger Vangan wakes up every morning at 6 to walk in the mountains near his home. From there, he can look down at the Erdenet mine, one of Asia’s largest copper mines. He’s never been a heavy smoker. In fact, he quit smoking altogether six years ago. But his lungs — and his heart — are in bad shape. He says that’s because thick plumes of dust consistently blow from the mine, forming clouds that blanket the area hundreds of miles in every direction.

Delger’s doctor agrees with him: Tailings dust from the copper mine is seriously harming not just Delger, but many people who live in Erdenet and beyond.

But officials at the Erdenet mine, which is owned by the government, insist that “white dust,” as it’s commonly called in Mongolia, isn’t causing any problems, even though researchers have found high levels of lead — a key component of the dust — in the blood of local children, and even though doctors say many adults in the area suffer from cardiovascular disease, which can be caused by lead poisoning.

“There have been no cases of people getting sick or suffering serious health problems due to white dust,” says Ganchimeg Jamts, chief physician of the state-owned Erdenet Sanatorium Complex.

The toxic nature of tailings dust is widely accepted as a serious problem in mining areas around the world. Many governments regulate how mining companies manage tailings dust, and mining companies themselves acknowledge the dangers their operations create for local people and create strategies to mitigate the impacts of tailings dust. But in Mongolia, where copper amounts to 20% of the country’s exports, the government has not acknowledged that the issue exists.

And even while many people are desperate for relief from white dust, losing the mine – and all the jobs it brings – would be devastating for people in Erdenet, the country’s second-largest city. Of the city’s 110,000 people, about 7,000 work at the mine, and many more work in industries that wouldn’t exist were it not for the mine’s presence.

Members of the Movement to Save the Future from the Harm of White Dust, a local activist group formed in 2019, have been demanding that the mine improve its dust-suppression technology, offer annual medical exams for residents in affected areas, supply them with decontamination products, and compensate them financially. But even members of that group say they don’t want the mine to cease operations: The economic fallout, both locally and nationally, would be too great.

This point was made particularly clear during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Erdenet mine paid the electricity and water bills for every household in Mongolia for seven months, at a cost of 650 billion Mongolian togrog (about 192 million United States dollars).

Meanwhile, surfaces in area homes, schools and businesses are covered with thick dust and people’s shoes turn completely white, as if they were dipped into a sack of flour.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to suffocate,” Delger says.

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Tailings dust, commonly known as “white dust” in Mongolia, builds up on a car's surface during the windy season in Erdenet.

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Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia

Delger Vangan, 65, reviews X-rays, electrocardiograms and other medical notes from his doctors at his home in the city of Erdenet.


The mining industry is one of the main drivers of Mongolia’s economy, generating nearly 30% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industries. The sector earns 93% of Mongolia’s export revenue, with the country sending vast quantities of copper and coal to China, and gold to Switzerland. The Erdenet mine is second only to the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine, located near Mongolia’s border with China to the south.

Tailings dust is created as part of the process of extracting copper and other metals. Chemically treated water separates the copper ore from the surrounding rock and is then poured into a tailings pond, where it evaporates, leaving white dust behind. The fine, powder-like substance containing such heavy metals as lead, zinc and arsenic blows away from the pond and sends toxic particles into the atmosphere.

Heavy metals aren’t the only concern. The small size of the dust particles makes them particularly damaging to the human body, scientists say. Particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns in diameter — about 30 times smaller than a human hair — poses a severe risk to human health. White dust is even smaller — just 0.1 micron in diameter — allowing it to penetrate deep into the lungs, clogging the narrow passages of the bronchial tubes, preventing oxygen from entering the alveoli, and contributing to heart disease and death, scientists say.

“What is crucial is that its particle size is finer than even PM 2.5 particles, which indicates how harmful it is for the human body,” says Sonomdagva Chonokhuu, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Engineering at the National University of Mongolia.

White dust was a more limited problem in the past, rising like smoke in the air for just a couple of months out of the year in the spring and autumn. Over the past decade, it has grown into a year-round issue, residents say. The tailings pond at the Erdenet mine has increased in size, which in turn has created more dust. Meanwhile, urban development in Erdenet has led to more people living closer to the mine and in the dust’s path.

An analysis of satellite imagery published in 2022 by the Meteorological Society of Japan found that windstorms stirred up white dust from the Erdenet mine into a cloud covering more than 2,000 square kilometers (about 772 square miles), affecting residential areas more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.

In Mongolia’s dry, windy conditions, white dust forms a dense fog. Visibility becomes so limited that cars must use their headlights. People are forced to wear masks, cover their mouths and noses, or stay indoors until the dust settles.

“I get allergic reactions and a cough,” says Baasansuren Dagvadorj, who lives in Orkhon province and is a board member of the Movement to Save the Future from the Harm of White Dust. “After it rains, my throat gets blocked. I can’t leave the house. I can’t sleep because my nose is blocked at night.”

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Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, GPJ Mongolia

White dust blows from the Erdenet copper mine's dumping area in the snow-covered landscape around the residential areas of Govil and Bayantsagaan in Mongolia's Orkhon province. The dust, known around the world as tailings dust, contains lead, zinc and arsenic — all toxins that local people say are making them sick.


Mongolia’s Minerals Law requires mining license holders to create environmental impact assessments and protection plans to ensure that mining operations are “conducted in the least-damaging way” to the environment. Tailings dams are necessary, the law states, but there’s no mention of tailings dust or use of the term “white dust.”

This lack of legal specificity isn’t unusual. In Chile, the largest copper-producing country in the world, the law governing mining defines tailings as dust from mining operations, but doesn’t consider it to be hazardous waste. As a result, it’s often stored in ways that don’t protect the environment, according to one 2023 research report.

In the worst cases, the toxic trail of tailings dust can last for generations. The city of Kabwe in Zambia is coated in tailings dust, even though the mine that produced it shut down three decades ago. The impacts are so persistent that, according to a 2018 study, about half of the 39,000 children in the area had a toxic amount of lead in their blood and needed medical intervention, a consequence of decades of mining by British companies, and later by the Zambian government.

In Erdenet, despite the many examples of the health problems that doctors and others say are caused by the copper mining process, mining officials say there’s no evidence that the tailings dust has an adverse effect on people.

Javkhlanbat Jigmedtseren, the head of the mine’s Department of Environment and Green Development, says the mine has conducted its own medical tests, which haven’t uncovered any problems.

From 2007 to 2018, the mining company conducted annual medical examinations on about three dozen local residents. In 2019, the company increased that number to about 500 people. The company says the examinations have shown no cases of illness caused by white dust.

But local residents say that’s just not true.

“Although I had white dust examinations many times, they never showed me the results. They just said that I was OK,” says J. Nansalmaa, who participated in the mining company’s study, and who requested that his full name not be used due to fear of reprisals from the company. “But I had a heart attack surgery twice, and almost died.”

Widespread medical research confirms a direct link between toxic dust inhalation and cardiovascular disease. Orkhon province also has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the country.

A view of the central train station and the Erdenet mine in the distance in Govil, one of the residential areas most affected by white dust. Video by Bilguun Munkhjargal for Global Press Journal

Doctors say they are also seeing more and more patients with red and itchy eyes, sore throats, coughing and sneezing, and difficulty breathing. In 2023, more than 1,500 respiratory diseases were registered in Orkhon province, more than in other provinces. While there have been no definitive scientific studies establishing a direct link between white dust and these specific health problems, doctors and researchers suspect the dust plays a significant role, and they express concern about the long-term health impacts of exposure to heavy metals.

“Although there are many causes, having many cases of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in our provinces has to do with mining dust,” says Dr. Saraa Yu., of the General Hospital of Orkhon province, who requested that his full name not be used due to fear of reprisals from the government.

It’s not just older residents like Delger who are affected. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of mining and air pollution, according to a study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund.

In 2019, researchers from the National University of Medical Sciences examined 100 children in the Erdenet region, aged 4 to 7, for possible impacts from white dust. Every child in the study was found to have lead in their blood, the researchers found — some at levels that far exceed the amount the World Health Organization says is a cause for concern.

Javkhlanbat and other mining officials dispute the results of the study.

Still, people in Erdenet struggle to breathe. The air becomes so thick with dust that they can even taste it.

“When I walk outside on a day with lots of white dust, I can taste something very salty in my mouth,” Baasansuren says.

Windowsills turn white with dust. It blankets everything. The only solution is to shelter indoors, Battsooj Davaanyam says.

“There is no way to leave home.”

A view of the tailings dams for white dust, with the Erdenet factory in the background. Video by Bilguun Munkhjargal for Global Press Journal


It is possible to mitigate the spread of tailings dust through a variety of techniques, such as covering the area with topsoil or vegetation, or applying chemical binding agents to the area to absorb the toxins. These solutions are common at mines throughout the world.

At Poland’s Zelázny Most underground mine, Europe’s largest tailings dump, dust problems vexed surrounding communities, which demanded that the mine quickly solve the problem. The mine’s mitigation efforts have prevented the problem from worsening, says Radoslaw Pomykala, a Polish underground mining expert and environmental engineer who recently visited Mongolia to better understand the country’s mining practices.

“It’s important to citizens, communities and mines to understand each other and work together to solve the problem,” Pomykala says.

The Erdenet mine uses several methods to prevent white dust from becoming airborne, including spraying dusty areas with a suppressant mixed with water, and officials there say these efforts have been effective.

A 2022 report by the National Legal Institute of Mongolia criticized the Erdenet mine for violating environmental regulations and discharging waste “that can adversely affect the environment and human health in the process of operation and production.”

But even people who have some political power hesitate to suggest that there’s anything that can be done about the tailings dust.

Batlut Damba, who was Erdenet’s mayor in 2018 and is now a member of Parliament, has seen the problem of white dust first-hand. In a recent campaign report, he said the government has decided to establish a new tailings dump for the Erdenet mine and move the existing one farther away from residential areas, and he promised the mine would introduce new technologies to suppress white dust over the next five years.

“It is a great decision that cares about the health of citizens,” Batlut wrote.

Batlut did not respond to requests for comment. But in his campaign report, he acknowledged that, even with efforts to improve the situation, the problem of white dust will likely persist.

“As long as the Erdenet mine is operating,” Batlut wrote, “we will not be able to get rid of white dust.”

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Bilguun Munkhjargal for Global Press Journal

A mixture of white dust and dirt covers Erdenet city after a strong storm in April 2020.

Khorloo Khukhnokhoi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.


Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this story from Mongolian.

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