7 Surprising Urban Health Hazards

Illustrated By Ly Ngo.
Your annual physical is on the calendar, your FitBit is synced, and you're such a dedicated yogi that your cute Bikram teacher even remembered your birthday. And, you're living in the big city, which means you haven't had to worry about getting Lyme Disease or poison oak all summer! But, even for sheltered urbanites, sneaky health risks abound. The best way to boost your immunity (aside from downing that extra kale smoothie) is by paying attention. Here are seven often-forgotten health hazards you're likely to face as a savvy city dweller — and some tips to keep them from sneaking up on you like wellness whack-a-mole.
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As a daily straphanger, you’ve likely spent big bucks on quality headphones to drown out the noise of your subway commute. However, the sound of that NPR podcast — or, let's be real, that “Summer Hits of the '90s” playlist — is directed straight to your eardrums when you use headphones, and the volume you choose can cause irreversible aural damage, according to Dr. Monica Okun, MD, an otolaryngologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.

“When you wear headphones continuously, it prevents the ears from cleaning themselves out, and you can eventually build up wax,” Dr. Okun says. Wax can be easily cleaned by your doctor, but headphone use can also cause cumulative long-term damage. “If you turn the volume up gradually over time, you might not realize it's too loud.” One way to know if you should turn it down is if you hear ringing after removing your headphones, Dr. Okun notes — adding that you should also make sure to take breaks between listening sessions. “The more you overstimulate the ear and don't allow it to recover afterward, the higher your chances of permanent hearing loss.”

Lastly, Dr. Okun warns about the distracting nature of listening to music in public. We’ve all seen a headphone-clad pedestrian cross a busy intersection and almost get hit by a speeding taxi. You don’t want to be that person.
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It’s part of the manicure ritual — soak, buff, file, polish, expose your hands to harmful UV rays. Wait, what? You may not realize it, but most nail driers used in salons and spas also emit UV light to help speed the drying process and harden your polish, whether or not you're gutting a gel manicure.

A 2009 study reported that UV-A light emitted from these lamps is the same as the cancer-causing rays you're exposed to in a tanning bed. Although another study published this year found these UV lamps pose only a small risk, researchers still advise applying sunscreen to your hands and possibly using UV-A protectant gloves to limit the risk of skin cancer and photoaging, the process that causes wrinkles and dark spots to appear on the skin. The risk, the researchers explain, is heightened with exposure and “multiple visits would be required to reach the threshold for potential DNA damage.”

Dr. Sandra Kopp, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, says moderation is the best policy. “Used sparingly, gel manicures pose little long-term health risk,” she explains. However, habitual use increases the possibility of the complications listed above. UV exposure can also weaken your nails, leaving them brittle, Dr. Kopp adds.
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If you drive a car, wearing a seat belt is a no-brainer. But, for whatever reason, wearing one in a taxi isn’t given the same priority. Only 38% of New York City taxi passengers wear their seat belts; the others seem to trust that everybody who gets a taxi license is the world’s safest driver.

However, Lewis R. Goldfrank, MD, emergency department chair at NYU Langone Medical Center, says he sees several people daily because of injuries related to not wearing a seat belt in a taxi. That Plexiglas cab-divider puts you at a high risk, Dr. Goldfrank says, and the ol’ "I’m only going to be in here for a few minutes, so why bother?" excuse doesn't fly. Injuries can range from the aesthetic — broken nose, chipped teeth, lacerated eyelids and lips — to the more serious, including concussions and broken bones.

Belt caught beneath the seat amidst layers of crumbs and general human slough? Gross. We’ve all been there. But, being a responsible passenger means diving hand-first for that buckle — or finding another taxi, Dr. Goldfrank advises. “If you are going to get in a vehicle, you have to appreciate that it's dangerous and recognize that you have the power to make the experience safe,” he says.
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You probably don’t want to think about how many people used that shower stall at Flywheel before you. And, you definitely don’t want to think about how often it’s actually disinfected. But, you should. Your feet are practically begging you to do so. Why? The warm, moist environment of a shower stall breeds all sorts of microbial critters, and when that is mixed with a constant stream of sweaty gym rats, we’d call that a fungus fiesta.

While some high-end fitness studios and spas offer shower sandals alongside towels, others leave you to fend for yourself. Suzanne Levine, MD, a New York-based podiatrist, advises you to always wear plastic flip-flops in public showers, as it is the only way to prevent fungi from finding a home on your perfectly pedicured tootsies. A fungal infection can be identified by several symptoms (itchiness, discolored and thickened nails, and sometimes pain) and should be examined by a doctor at the first sign of a problem, Dr. Levine says. Current treatment involves either an intensive, 90-day course of oral medication or an expensive laser procedure.

The real danger here is that fungus can potentially lead to a secondary — and life-threatening — bacterial infection, according to Dr. Levine. So, remember that the next time you pack your gym bag, and toss in some 'flops.
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Commuting sans car means we carry everything: umbrella, water bottle, five lip glosses, cycling shoes, and snacks — typically all on one shoulder. Michael Fox, physical therapist and co-owner of Star Physical Therapy in midtown, says a heavy bag declares war on your posture. Because shoulders have a natural down-tilt, you have to lift them to hold a bag. “That can create a spasm in the upper trapezius muscle,” he says. And, over time, chronic tightening of neck muscles can cause not only pain, but more serious injury.

To alleviate the problem, Fox suggests both tailoring your bag’s weight to your size and only wearing bags with wide straps, preferably with padding. Crossbody bags will also take away tension from your shoulder and create balance. You want to avoid “weight hanging off your side that can pull you sideways,” he adds. Carrying two bags, one on each shoulder, instead of one will help as well. Lastly, Fox suggests forming the habit of switching which shoulder carries the bag every two to three minutes or as soon as you feel strain.

Stretching is an important component of keeping your neck muscles pain-free, Fox observes. If you carry your bag on your right side, bend your left ear toward the shoulder, elongating the right side of the neck without compressing the left.
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Because of the way cities are built (i.e., lots and lots of tall buildings), wind is unable to sweep away pollution like it might in more open areas. This, combined with the high concentration of gasoline-fueled vehicles and the detritus contained within the subway system (hello, discarded Chipotle containers and rat feces) reduces the quality of the air we breathe on a daily basis.

Dr. Patrick L. Kinney, an air-pollution health specialist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, compares the possible effects of urban air pollution to breathing cigarette smoke in lower concentrations. “If you have a couple million people all breathing that dirty air, you can get substantial numbers of people developing heart disease or lung cancer,” he says.

The key to keeping healthy, he says, is to pay attention to the air quality of your surroundings and avoid running or biking in highly-trafficked areas. We’re not saying you should hold your breath when a subway car passes you on an underground platform, but Dr. Kinney also explains that both the motion of the train and the turning of the wheels have been known to kick up dust and metal particles that could have profound implications on your respiratory system.
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The dangers of high heels are so well-documented that it makes sense to stick to ballet flats on your work commute. But, you may be doing more harm than good by swapping your stilettos for flats that are too, well, flat. Dr. Levine explains that slip-ons with no arch support can have adverse effects — namely plantar fasciitis or heel spurs for high-arched feet or over-pronation that leads to knee, hip, and back pain for flat-footed folks.

When you wear these kinds of shoes, gravity takes its toll and your arch essentially “falls down” when it shouldn't, Dr. Levine explains. The key is moderation, and she recommends not only varying your footwear on a daily basis but also changing pairs within the day. If you simply can’t part with your favorite bow-topped, patent-leather flats, Dr. Levine recommends using removable arch supports like Pillows for Your Feet, which can be placed in heels or in flats without taking up a lot of room.

“It's unfortunate, but people really do forget about their feet until they really hurt,” she says. It’s a good thing Birkenstocks are back in fashion.
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