EWU Public Health Student and Professor Travel to Mongolia to Improve Air Quality

Their work was aimed at helping some of Mongolia's most vulnerable citizens stay healthy in spite of often disastrous air quality.

December 7, 2022

Nicholas Swope, lecturer for the Master of Public Health program at EWU, and Jason Sisk, a recent Eastern master’s of public health graduate, traveled this past summer to analyze air-quality data in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, one of the world’s most polluted cities.

Their work, part of a 10-day collaboration with the People in Need, Mongolia project, was aimed at helping some of Mongolia’s most vulnerable citizens mitigate the worst effects of their often dangerous air. The work was funded, in part, by an EWU Research and Creative Works grant.

Swope and Sisk’s trip was aimed at bolstering an international effort to use training and research to help local agencies implement and maintain cleaner air practices.

On July 1, the researchers hit the ground running in Ulaanbaatar. “It was essentially a mad sprint, a crazy dash. While we were there, we worked non-stop,” says Swope.

During those 10 days, they conducted an onsite capacity gap assessment with members of the People in Need, Mongolia project (PIN), work that they followed up on, remotely, for two months.

Project deliverables involved trainings, and training materials, that use energy-expenditure data to optimize heating in gers, the area’s traditional housing. Swope and Sisk also interviewed a sustainable ger producer to gain additional insights.

About half of Mongolia’s population lives in gers (also called yurts), including about 61 percent of those residing in or around Ulaanbaatar, a city of 1.5 million.

Ger’s are windowless, circular structures of wood and fabric. In the winter, extra layers of felt fabric and plastic are added to provide insulation. It’s seldom sufficient to ward off the bitter cold during the sub-zero Mongolian winters, so ger residents typically resort to inefficient coal-burning stoves to keep warm. In Ulaanbaatar, this becomes a major contributor to poor air quality. To make matters worse, ger dwellers who lack resources are often forced to burn whatever they can, such as trash, tires, or dried animal waste.

On the coldest days of the year, daily averages of PM2.5 pollution levels can reach 687 micrograms per cubic meter — 27 times the level the World Health Organization recommends as safe, according to the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF). As in many of the world’s most populous cities, the poor air quality disproportionately affects Ulaanbaaatar’s most vulnerable, with long-lasting health effects including a high prevalence of infant respiratory complications and poor lung health in children.

While Swope and Sisk prepared the training materials, they also provided direct service assistance in one of People in Need’s most impactful projects: the Cooking, Heating, and Insulation Package (CHIP) project.

The CHIP project aims to significantly reduce the air pollution that’s harming one of the poorest districts in the country. The project improves Gers’ heat retention while maintaining its traditional design and layout.

It wasn’t just People in Need, Mongolia who benefited from Eastern’s collaboration. Swope plans to incorporate the lessons learned during the visit into future public health courses at EWU. Additionally, Swope and Sisk established connections with People in Need, Mongolia for future EWU student involvement.

The knowledge Sisk gained, he says, has helped him in his career and will continue to do so.

“This experience has set the tone for my perception of community public health projects. Our partnership highlighted that to address community challenges, best-fit solutions hinge on community dialogue and engagement, and passionate, community-experienced public health professionals,” says Sisk.

“Having the opportunity to apply classroom materials in Mongolia created incredible friendships and provided further insights. Through guidance from PIN staff, I was able to flesh out the “why’s” of techniques and gain cultural perspectives,” he says.

Sisk now works for the Washington State Department of Health as a guidance and engagement coordinator for the COVID-19 outbreak response in the Non-healthcare Congregate Settings Program.