As we roll into the heights of allergy season, many city residents are thanking their lucky stars that they live in the concrete jungle rather than in rural fields of hay and forests of pollen. What they may not realize is that urban living not only exposes them to a bevy of allergens, but also may increase the prevalence of allergies in both adults and children.
Do City Residents Really Have Worse Allergies?
According to a study published by the science journal Thorax, children who grow up in rural environments are half as likely to develop asthma and allergies as children who had grown up in urban or suburban environments. A similar study has also linked city living to an increased likelihood of allergies in adult women as compared to those living in the country.
It has been hypothesized that regular exposure to animals and bacteria in rural environments creates an immune response that makes children more resistant to developing allergies. Another possibility is that city-dwelling youth have irregular immune responses due to a lack of vitamin D from spending more time indoors. These children also have a greater degree of exposure to irritants such as dust mites, mice, and exhaust fumes that may trigger allergic reactions.
Regardless of the source of your allergies, city living will inevitably lead to different kinds of allergen exposures than you may encounter elsewhere.
Unlike in natural environments, most of the foliage found in the city is deliberately planted and maintained by people. You might think that this would lead to lower pollen counts in the city. Unfortunately, city planners often had a different priority entirely.
“When used for street plantings, only male trees should be selected, to avoid the nuisance from the seed,” advises the 1949 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture. In their eagerness to keep streets clear of seed pods and fruit, city planners failed to account for the fact that male trees instead produce pollen—and lots of it. And without any female trees around to trap this pollen, the excess ends up drifting all over the city and into residents’ sinuses. This phenomenon is known as “botanical sexism” and affects cities across the country, including New York.
New York City’s allergy season is also growing longer as a result of climate change. The National Climate Assessment changed New York City’s designation from “continental subtropical” to “humid subtropical” in 2020, and these warmer temperatures mean that plants begin releasing pollen earlier in the spring and stay alive later into the fall—extending allergy season by up to twenty-one days each year.
Interestingly, research conducted by Northwestern University found that children living in cities have a much higher prevalence of food-related allergies—for example, city kids were twice as likely to have peanut and shellfish allergies than children raised in other environments. In addition, admission rates for patients suffering from anaphylactic reactions are 12.3/100,000 in urban areas as compared to just 4.6/100,000 in rural environments.
While food-related allergies are more common in urban areas, cities are also more likely to have restaurants able to accommodate individuals with these allergies. Some establishments, such as Erin McKenna’s Bakery and A La Mode Shoppe, are designed to specifically cater to people with food allergies. In fact, Spokin (a resource blog for those with food allergies) ranked New York City the second-most allergy-friendly city in the country.
Dust mites do not survive well in deserts: these microscopic pests cannot drink and thus stay hydrated by absorbing moisture from the air. While this means that cities in the arid Southwest are relatively mite-free, America’s coastal metropolises—including New York City—are rife with dust mites. In addition, dust mite allergies are more common among people living in urban areas than suburban or rural environments.
Unlike pet dander, which is more likely to remain airborne, dust mite allergens quickly can easily build up on soft surfaces. The best way to prevent allergic reactions to dust mites is to minimize the number of curtains, rugs, and upholstered furniture items present in your living space, reduce the humidity of your apartment, and incorporate dusting into your daily cleaning routine.
Cockroach allergies have been strongly linked to increasing asthma rates among populations of inner-city children: up to 80% of city-dwelling youth with asthma are sensitive to cockroach allergens. Research has also found a strong correlation between high levels of exposure to cockroach allergens in childhood and the subsequent development of cockroach allergies.
Exposure to cockroaches is heavily dependent on one’s living environment. While these widely-despised insects have adapted to survive in extreme conditions and can be found in suburban and rural environments, they absolutely thrive in cities. 63% of homes across the United States contain cockroach allergens, as compared to more than 78% of urban homes.
For those unaware of their cockroach allergies, it is easy to mistake the symptoms—a persistent cough and stuffy nose, frequent sinus infections, and a tightness of the chest—as a particularly stubborn and long-lasting cold. The best way to determine if you might be suffering from a cockroach allergy is to get a skin test.
Certain types of mold can cause irritation and illness even in individuals with no other health conditions, and these symptoms only become more severe in those with allergies to mold spores. Unfortunately, New York City is a hotbed of mold. According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, there are currently more than 24,000 mold violation cases open against city landlords.
New York City’s Local Law 55 of 2018 requires landlords to keep residences free of “indoor mold hazards.” However, as the city’s rampant mold violations demonstrate, enforcing this regulation can prove challenging. In addition, there are currently no laws that require landlords to disclose the presence of mold to prospective tenants. These combined factors put New Yorkers at a greater risk of mold exposure than most other citizens across the country, which can be a dangerous situation for New Yorkers with mold allergies.
Mold often occurs as a result of water leakage or other unusual buildups of moisture. If you are struggling with mold exposure in your home, the best course of action is to seal off the moldy area with tape and plastic sheets until the hazard can be addressed.