Ulan Bator (AFP)

It is the coldest capital in the world - and one of the most polluted. To purify the atmosphere, Ulaanbaatar encourages families to use smokeless charcoal ... but this source of heat has already killed eight times in the Mongolian capital.

One evening in October, Gerel Ganbaatar decides to spend the night with his parents in a traditional yurt around Ulaanbaatar. This choice will be fatal to the young woman, four months pregnant.

A few hours later, Gerel and his parents begin to feel nausea and breathing problems. They call for help, but too late. When help arrives, the 29-year-old mother is already dead.

For the first time that night, the family had just used smokeless charcoal briquettes, a free heating source distributed by the authorities, which banned raw coal.

Since locals started using these briquettes last month, seven more people have died asphyxiated, mostly children, elderly people and pregnant women. Dozens of other victims were hospitalized.

"I burned coal all my life, we were never intoxicated," says Gerel's mother.

Until last winter, raw coal was widely used in the yurts surrounding Ulaanbaatar, in the neighborhoods where thousands of nomads from the steppes are piled up.

The smoke from this unprocessed coal, in a city where the temperature drops blissfully to -40 degrees in the winter, was blamed for being responsible for record pollution rates in the Mongolian capital.

- Twice as much oxygen -

Hence the idea of ​​generalizing smokeless briquettes, which last longer and heat better than traditional coal, as provided by the authorities.

As long as they are used correctly, briquettes, which are denser, consume twice as much oxygen as raw coal, according to Byambajargal Losol, a physicist at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Or an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The state factory producing the briquettes emphasizes that families should think about sweeping their stove before using them. She started providing a free sweeping service after the first cases of intoxication reported by the local press.

In a city where only half of the population has central heating, the government dispatched teams to poor neighborhoods for information sessions on the use of briquettes and promised to distribute free carbon monoxide detectors.

In the opinion of experts, the authorities' fight against air pollution is beginning to bear fruit.

Sonomdagva, from the National University of Mongolia, told AFP that PM 2.5 levels, those that enter the lungs and arteries, were already down by 40% last month. report to October 2018.

But the unusual mildness of the climate this autumn may partly explain this improvement, as well as the fear of intoxication, which has led some households to use wood rather than coal ... or to less heat.

Enkhjargal Chuluun, a nurse in a dental office, recognizes that briquettes heat better and are easier to use.

"But we are always afraid of asphyxiation, so we started sleeping with the window open ...".

© 2019 AFP