One cold night in October, Gerel Ganbaatar decided to stay with her parents in one of Mongolia’s traditional ger communities on the outskirts of the capital — a decision which would prove fatal.
Within hours of arriving, she and her parents both became breathless and nauseous. They desperately called for help — but by the time medics arrived Gerel, who was four months pregnant, was already dead.
The 29-year-old’s parents were using smokeless briquettes to warm their home for the first time that night: A government-issued fuel — made of coking coal from the southern Gobi region and washed coal powder — it has been linked to deaths and ill-health.
Since residents started using the briquettes in October, there have been seven other deaths — mainly children, pregnant women, and the elderly. Nearly 1,000 have been hospitalized in Ulaanbaatar’s outer slum districts, prompting fears the fuel can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
Gerel’s grieving mother, Jargalsaikhan Mishigdorj, warns the fuel should be used with care. “I have burned coal all of my life, we have never ever been suffocated,” she explains.
The Mongolian government is trying to battle dangerous smog levels in one of the world’s most polluted cities by trying to offer replacements for raw coal, which produces a dense, dangerous smoke, but is often used by the poor to warm their homes in a place where temperature can plummet to minus -40 degrees Celsius.
Mongolian officials say the briquettes last longer and emit fewer fumes.
One nurse at the National Poison Emergency hospital, who declined to say her name, told Agence France-Presse she had never seen the numbers of carbon monoxide poisoning patients so high.
“We are working under an enormous amount of pressure,” she says. The city’s emergency unit said issues were easing once people were told the “correct ways to burn the briquettes.”
They said public service workers were spending time in the ger district to teach people about the new fuel as well as to report if any raw coal was still being used.
Its the latest example of governments in Asia struggling to find a safe, workable solution to replacing coal, in a region that is battling toxic levels of air pollution.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to provide cooking gas connections to millions of rural residents has been beset by corruption.
In neighbouring China, three million homes near Beijing were ordered to switch from coal to gas or electric heating in 2017, but a difficult transition left many without any heating at all.
Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital and only half of the residents have central heating, and Ulaanbaatar regularly exceeds World Health Organization recommendations for air quality.