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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Big City Dangers

Joelle Webb

Since the industrial revolution the world has witnessed the rapid expansion of its metropolises. For years humans have been flocking to these urban centers in search of jobs, commodities, entertainment and other phenomena that can commonly be found in cities. With this grand, not so new invention which most of us exploit, one must wonder what negative effects city living might have on our health. When populations of animals are clustered together certain dangers arise that threaten the well being of each organism. Notably in China, Japan, India and the United States which contain extensive cities humans battle the health risks that come along them. One such well-known city in the USA which has documented and studied the biological threats to its inhabitants is New York City.

A press release from the Department of Health is not necessary to let New Yorkers know that their home is hazardous to their health. Walking along any street in Manhattan the average observer can smell car fumes in the air, see the filth in the gutters and occasionally witness a purse-snatching. The potential for catching communicable diseases or being injured in some way is severely heightened in concentrated populations like New York. Some of the alleged pollution problems are water contamination, excessive noise and the presence of smog. Several diseases have spread throughout the city in recent years including the flu, West Nile Virus and meningitis. Another biological contaminant that has been found in NYC recently is Anthrax. This substance being sent through the postal system and other crimes endanger the well being of the citizens of this famous city. Anything from a car accident to an intentional murder or shooting can cause an unnatural death. Additionally, freak occurrences like terrorist attacks can kill or infect populations of people like those in New York City. These factors increase the likelihood that residents of a city will contract a particular disease, suffer from an environmentally caused illness, die in an accident or be the victim of a violent crime. Dangers associated with cities threaten the most basic biological feature that urban, suburban and country humans possess, life.

Air pollution is one of the most noticeable and common complaints of people in an urban setting. On a hot day one can see the contaminated cloud-like structures hanging over a bustling metropolis. Smog is mostly made up of ozone; a molecule formed when, "nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons combine in sunlight (3)." Initially, this substance will strike a sufferer with an itchy throat and a tight chest. Unfortunately, other health problems like allergies cause similar symptoms and so ozone exposure may not be identified as the problem. If it continues, such serious problems as emphysema and fibrosis among other chronic respiratory diseases may result (3). Ozone can also aggravate existing respirator problems like asthma. Sadly, New York City has the 4th worst ozone levels across most of the nation (4). The city has funded campaigns to encourage the use of public transportation and thereby reduce ozone production, but for the moment smog is still a devastating pollutant which threatens the air quality of city-dwellers.

Several other substances are considered contributors to air pollution in New York City. Unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates (soot) have been found in the city's atmosphere in the last decade (4). The most common source of all three pollutants is motor vehicle exhaust. On a daily basis thousands of cars, buses and trucks burn gallons of fossil fuels on the streets of New York City. The congestion of urban areas and other traffic conditions increase gasoline use and, consequently, levels of pollutants.

The inhalation of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates cause serious biological problems. A comparison by an anonymous scholar once noted that living in New York City is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The potential risks of inhaling pollutants are not as direct or serious as those found on cigarette cartons, but the effects are mildly comparable. Some reported symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates respectively are shortness of breath, eye-nose-throat irritation and even cancer (4). Air pollution is a dangerous side effect of living in cities.

Water pollution is especially hazardous because fresh water is a necessary element for human life to continue. When a population of humans must transport mass quantities of water to their place of residence several problems arise. The distance allows for contamination while traveling to the final destination. When water is collected in a pool and remains still, opportunistic organisms like algae and mosquitoes have a chance to breed. Biologically manufactured chemicals escalate the problem of keeping water supplies in reservoir free of poisons.

The residents of New York City have a viable reason to be concerned not only about poisons in the air, but also about the quality of their water reservoirs. Extensive sewage systems, fertilizers and other chemicals are guilty of contaminating the city's water supply. Additionally, air pollution causes acid rain which raises the levels of foreign substances in the water. Nine million residents rely on New York's sizeable reservoirs for water to drink, bathe, cook and clean with. In the past year phosphorous levels have been a concern, earning the attention of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (1).

The effects of this substance could cause major problems with the reservoir system. "Too much phosphorous triggers algae blooms that result in poor water taste, odor and color, and induces the release of heavy metal contaminants from bottom sediments (1)." This nutrient is safe in small quantities but a higher phosphorous concentration in the reservoir system would increase plant growth. The system is particularly susceptible to this problem in the summer time when warmer weather fosters more plant growth. Phosphorous contamination is one of the obstacles that New York must battle in order to provide residents with clean water.

As people in a residential community living in close quarters, New York citizens are more susceptible to the passing on and catching of contagious diseases. Places like nursing homes and schools are prime sites for the transfer of germs. One of the most common ailments that people contract and complain of in the winter is the flu. Though vaccines are available, scores of people become infected each year. The problems lie in the fact that not everyone gets vaccinated and that influenza can mutate into forms which are resistant. Press releases warn that the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses are at high risk to get infected (2). Often, these individuals have weakened immune systems and can easily catch influenza. Also, the flu can develop other complications which can seriously endanger their health. In NYC a simple virus like the flu can cause widespread health problems due to the nature of the communities and the population.

A considerably more dangerous epidemic which struck New York City during the summer of 200 was West Nile virus. This virus is transported mainly by mosquitoes, but dead birds that were infected were also found. In a congested city, it was difficult to calm millions of scared residents and devise a plan that would get rid of the problem safely. Panic ensued when it was revealed that seven elderly people died from West Nile virus (6). It was assumed that the same members of the population who are susceptible to the Flu would be likely to catch this new virus. In light of the threat, the city decided to spray and try and get rid of any standing water where mosquitoes can breed (6). Often, pesticides can be dangerous to the environment or if ingested or inhaled by children. Therefore, the decision to spray select portions of the city was taken very seriously. Grand gestures such pesticide use were taken to avoid a city-wide outbreak of West Nile virus. The city took preventative measures to ensure the well being of the majority of its citizens.

Cities also try to protect their citizens from dangerous criminals. The incidence of rapes, murders and violent attacks in cities are much higher than the statistics from smaller towns. Recently, New York was attacked by terrorists. This grand city was probably chosen because of its population of nine million people and symbolic position as a financial and fashion center. The disaster immediately destroyed thousands of lives but the effects are still being felt by the survivors. The remains from the World Trade Center left tons and tons of rubble in lower Manhattan. From the site, the air has been contaminated with poisons and dust samples show levels of 10-15% fiberglass and approximately 1% asbestos (5). These substances irritate the eyes, nose and lungs of rescue workers and New Yorkers traveling, living or working in the area. Only spraying the debris with water to keep the dust down has helped the situation, nothing more can be done until it is cleared away. Once again, the residents of a large city are put in danger by the circumstances which arise by living in a metropolis.

City living has attracted scores of people due to its conveniences and opportunities. The amenities are accompanied by a host of risks associated with large populations living in a limited area. Pollution is a common problem which can influence the quality of the air and water for the residents. The possibility of epidemics like the flu and West Nile virus are an additional worry to people in cities. Criminals strike victims in cities more often than those in other non-urban centers. In conclusion, living in a city can increase an individual's health risks in several areas.

WWW Sources

1) Spitzer call for tighter NYC watershed pollution controls , An article documenting a water contamination problem

2) Flu virus , Press release on the appearance of the flu in NYC.

3) Pollutants and Damage They Do , An article about the trials and tribulations of cyclists on a city block

4) Air Pollution , A detailed table of air pollutants and their effects, sources and history in New York City

5) Downwind from Disaster , Effects of WTC disaster on people in the neighborhood

6) Epidemics , An article from an online newsletter for concerned New Yorkers

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