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Health & Fitness

How Dallas is Bad For Your Health

The unique factors that post challenges to wellness in North Texas.
photo via Getty

Every city in the country has certain factors that uniquely affect the health of its residents—everything from pollution and water quality to alcohol consumption and divorce rate. Dallas is no different. Dallasites work more, eat more, and drink more. And, in some respects, our bodies are paying for it. But just how bad is Dallas for your health?

Alcohol consumption
Texans are living up to their beer-drinking reputation. According to the most recent data from a report sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the state drank more than 606 million gallons of beer in 2011. That is nearly 10 percent of the total beer consumption in the United States. 

The average Texan consumed nearly a quarter less wine than the average American, yet twice as much wine as he drank in 1977. Especially over the last few years, wine consumption has increased markedly. “One of the only things that gets people to drink less is that they don’t have the money to drink with. The economy is improving, and we are seeing consumption tip back up again,” says Robin LaVallee, one of the researchers behind the NIAAA report.

In total in 2011, the average Texan drank more than two gallons of alcohol. So how much is too much? More than seven drinks a week for women, and more than 14 for men, according to the NIAAA. 

According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the pollution level in Dallas is still above federal standards. In fact, ozone levels in Dallas were worse than in Miami; Chicago; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and New York, in 2010.

Dallas has a couple of battles to fight. Approximately 70 percent of its pollution comes from emissions associated with mobile sources, like cars, trains, airplanes, and construction equipment, according to Shannon Stevenson, program manager for the air-quality planning and operations team at the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG). “We have a ton of cars on the road,” she says. “Because it is not just Dallas, it is more of the metro area, there is sometimes a challenge in coordinating across many jurisdictions.”

Dallas also is geographically challenged. For example, Houston is near the coast and has the benefit of coastal winds. They blow Houston’s pollution problem up north—to Dallas. So some of DFW’s pollution may come from other areas, but it’s our mess to clean up. “The EPA, who sets the standard [for pollution], doesn’t really care where the problem comes from,” Stevenson says. “You have to come into compliance.”

But there’s a bit of good news. Dallas has made great strides over the past decade to improve its air quality. Between 2000 and 2012, the ozone levels have improved by 15 percent, while the general population in the United States increased 26 percent, according to David Brymer, director of the Air Quality division of the TCEQ.

“We have put in additional regulations and control requirements” in the DFW area, Brymer says. This includes restrictions on industrial plants such as cement kilns.

The local governments are focusing on ways to improve transportation emissions as well. Only one other metro area in the country has more electric vehicle charging stations based on density, according to Stevenson. And the NCTCOG also periodically offers subsidies to businesses to replace older vehicles with newer, cleaner, low-emitting ones. So take a deep breath. It isn’t so bad.

If Dallas is a town of extremes, it may be most apparent in the population’s waistlines. More than 36 percent of the city’s population is a healthy weight, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s better than Austin and Miami. In fact, the percentage of Dallasites in tip-top shape is almost in line with Los Angeles.

But the city tips the scale in the other direction, too. Almost 34 percent of the population is obese, according to data from the CDC. Compared to New York, which has an obesity rate of just over 20 percent, and San Francisco, which has a rate of just 18 percent, Dallas has quite a bit of work to do.

Dallasites’ work ethic may make it hard to stay lean. Texans worked an average of 44 hours a week in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from about 42 hours in 2010. It may not sound like much, but a few hours a week can make all the difference.

A person’s health greatly depends on his ability to “build back formalized exercise into his or her day,” says Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, deputy chief medical officer of the Dallas-based American Heart Association. Several factors help. “A person’s family situation, their ability to have or not have child care, commute time, and long working hours play into your ability to do physical activity,” he says.

According to the CDC, the Texas divorce rate is about 11 percent lower than the national average and has declined by 40 percent since 1990. This comes as a bit of a surprise to at least one prominent area lawyer, Brian Webb. “It is stunning to think that there has been a decline,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone in the practice would have guessed that was possible.”

But there are some aspects to Texas law that might discourage divorce in the state. For example, alimony laws are stricter in Texas than in other states, even after new laws were put in place a couple of years ago. As a general rule, if a couple has been married less than 10 years, a nonworking spouse cannot receive alimony.

“Texas alimony laws are probably the most restrictive in the country and very detrimental to stay-at-home moms and others who gave up their careers to raise a family,” says Jeff Landers, author of the new book Divorce: Think Financially, Not Emotionally—What Women Need To Know About Securing Their Financial Future Before, During, and After Divorce.

But divorce still happens here. Webb has seen people fight over everything from pets to preachers. And nothing says Dallas more than a custody battle over guns. “People’s gun collections have a lot of sentimental value,” Webb says. This plus the fact that they are transportable make them ripe ammo for a separation battle. “We do see a lot of fights over guns.” 

So what’s the best strategy for those going through a divorce? “People experience such an emotional, hurtful process that it is really hard to be as sensible and rational as they would be in a business transaction,” Webb says. “The best advice is to not be emotional or handle it in an angry way. Don’t let your bitterness get in the way.”

Water quality
If you live on the outskirts of North Texas, particularly near a fracking site on the Barnett Shale, there might be a little something in your water. A team led by Kevin Schug, a Ph.D. and professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of Texas at Arlington, recently conducted a survey of private wells across 13 counties in Arlington, Fort Worth, and other areas west of Dallas.

“We have cited different ways that arsenic could get into the drinking water,” he says. “The closer you live to one of these drilling sites, the greater probability you have of having arsenic above the safe level.”

Arsenic has been linked to quite a few health concerns, among the worst being cancer and neurological development defects. Schug hopes his report will encourage some of the companies responsible for fracking in the region to work with him and local governments to develop best practices.

“If our findings become further validated, then it is not going to bode well for the industry to stay behind closed doors,” he says. “They say they are self-regulated, but no one can see what that looks like.”

As for city-dwellers, it “is not always simple” to understand the water coming out of your tap, according to TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow. “Each public water system in the state is required to issue an annual consumer confidence report to each of their customers. These reports spell out the status of the system and whether or not the system meets federal drinking water standards.”

Still, chances are, in Dallas, your water is better than what is coming out of a private well. Ken Del Regno, assistant director for water production at Dallas Water Utilities, says all drinking water in the city comes from about half a dozen lakes in the area, and its plants treat nearly 900 million gallons per day. The most likely place water can be contaminated is after it leaves a plant on its way to your home.

But the water is pushed through pipes at very high pressures (think of a fire hydrant). “So if there is any kind of leak, it flows out of the pipe, not into the pipe,” he says.

Texans might like to drink and eat, but they have another vice: smoking. About 19 percent of the state’s residents light up, versus 18 percent nationwide. High school students stack up better, though. Only 15 percent of high school students in Dallas smoke, versus 18 percent nationwide. This is one reason the state’s cancer rates have managed to stay slightly below the national average. Cancer incidence rates in Texas are 534 per 100,000 among men and 395 among women, compared to national rates of 551 and 419, respectively.

But the state doesn’t do everything right. Obesity can also contribute to higher cancer rates, so Dallas’ heavier population could exacerbate the problem in the future. “Studies have found an association between several types of cancer and obesity,” says Rebecca Siegel, director of surveillance information at the American Cancer Society. “It has been attributed to 14 to 20 percent of all cancer-related death. While we don’t fully understand the mechanism, there is definitely a link.”

Moreover, cancer related to infectious agents, such as HPV, is higher in Texas, partly because immunization rates in the state are below the national average. In 2011, only 49 percent of the adolescent female population was vaccinated, versus the national average of 53 percent.

“In the future, cervical cancer rates might be higher if Texas doesn’t ramp up vaccination coverage,” Siegel says.

Despite Texans’ having several months a year of sun exposure, their skin cancer rates—and deaths due to skin cancer—are among the lowest in the country, according to data from the CDC. In fact, Texas is joined by several other warm states, including California, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Mississippi, for having the lowest deaths from skin cancer in the United States.

Meanwhile, a handful of northern states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Minnesota, had among the highest rates of melanoma. One reason may be that people who live in colder climates seek out ways to actively bake their skin, according to the National Cancer Institute.  “Young adult women in the Midwest (e.g., in Minnesota) show particularly high use of indoor tanning and also an increasing incidence of melanoma,” research from the Institute says. Indoor tanning can increase melanoma risk by 75 percent.

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