Suburbs Don't Pose Health Risk

Suburbanites, watch out! The anti-sprawl (search) mob is coming to rob you of the peace of mind you moved to the suburbs to get.

“Suburban sprawl linked to chronic ailments,” was this week’s health-scare headline, prompted by a new study from the RAND Corporation.

“Researchers found that people who live in areas with a high degree of sprawl are more likely to report chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, arthritis, headaches and breathing difficulties than people who live in less sprawling areas,” announced RAND’s media release.

It’s enough to make you want to move back to grimy cities where you can’t park your car, take a walk after dark, see the stars at night, get a restful night’s sleep or enjoy the beauty of Nature’s greenery — or is it?

Fret not, my fellow and aspiring suburbanites. This study is about as weighty as the dandelion spores blowing through my backyard.

Using data from 8,686 people living in 38 areas for which “sprawl indicators” were available, the RAND researchers compared the prevalence of self-reported health problems among the study population living in areas with “more sprawl” to the prevalence of self-reported health problems of the study population living in areas with “less sprawl.”

In the language of epidemiology (the study of disease in human populations), this type of research is known as an “ecologic” study, a kind of study with its own specific deficiency named after it — that is, the “ecologic fallacy.” (search)

The “fallacy” here is that the study cannot possibly link living in suburbia with health problems because no data were gathered on whether living in suburbia was the actual cause of any of the reported health problems. Just because the “more sprawl” population had a higher prevalence of high blood pressure than the “less sprawl” population, for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean sprawl is the only explanation for the difference.

The varying genetics or other lifestyle choices of the individuals in those populations are most likely the actual causes for the observed differences in health status.

At best, ecologic studies may be useful for identifying topics for further research. But they can never be the final word in terms of linking a cause with an effect.

Much to their credit, the RAND researchers acknowledged as much in their write-up, noting that “this study provides some initial support to the hotly debated claim that suburban sprawl is bad for health [emphasis added]” and that the research is at a “very early stage.”

Subsequent media reports, unfortunately, skipped right over this crucial point.

Although this study is light years away from linking suburban living with ill health, don’t expect the RAND study’s funders and their dubious associates to forgo exploiting this study for their political agenda.

One of the study’s funders is the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (search), a federal agency that has already made up its mind that sprawl is bad for health.

At a July 2003 anti-sprawl conference co-sponsored by the NIEHS, the agency’s deputy director Dr. Samuel Wilson stated: “We really are in an environmental health crisis. As we have more urban sprawl and development that gobbles up the natural environment, we have more health problems.”

Dr. Wilson’s statement couldn’t possibly be based on any facts since the new RAND study is the first study to examine sprawl and health, albeit not very thoroughly.

The other study funder is the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (search), perhaps the largest private sponsor of the lifestyle nanny researchers who continually lecture the public about its smoking, drinking, eating and exercise habits. The RWJF has been campaigning against sprawl since the 1990s, once sponsoring a study that unabashedly claimed crime was worse in the suburbs than big cities.

I’m not certain why the NIEHS and the RWJF are so anti-sprawl (code for “anti-suburban development”), but I suspect that both organizations have been influenced by environmental activists who oppose suburban expansion. The NIEHS is a notorious hotbed for federal junk scientists who are closet eco-activists and the RWJF funds the anti-development Tides Foundation (search) and Tides Center (search).

Suburban growth may be a legitimate public policy issue, but the unsubstantiated notion that suburban living is unhealthy so far has no place in that debate.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of "Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams" (Cato Institute, 2001).

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