The urban environment can be scary. While the dangers of the outdoors and wilderness survival are well publicized, city planners, businesses and the public alike struggle with how to mitigate the dangers with which the urban environment is fraught. Let us now explore the chilling survival dangers that may face us vulnerable humans in the wild, wild world that is the city. Eerily, some of the worst hazards come from attempts at charity, efficiency, or green innovation.
10. Monster Icicles
It is less well known than it should be that urban environments juxtapose walking areas for pedestrians with perfect places for icicles to drop from great heights. This can be deadly. In cities with cold winter climates, sufficient precipitation and the presence of tall buildings, such as St. Petersburg, Russia or New York, USA, a perfect storm exists that has, tragically, caused numerous injuries and in some cities, repeated fatalities. Environmental sustainability measures centered on making buildings more energy efficient have perversely created increased danger to the public in certain cases.
A 2010 article in the International Journal on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat describes how buildings built to be energy efficient (or renovated to be energy efficient) release less heat, saving energy but dramatically increasing the accumulation of potentially dangerous ice formations on the outside of skyscrapers. When temperatures rise, ice chunks fall to the city streets below. Icicles forming as water drips down the edges of buildings has caused tragic deaths, most notably in St. Petersburg, Russia where in a single year (2010) a shocking five people died and 150 were injured after being hit by huge falling icicles or ice chunks. Senseless carnage! Novosibirsk, the third most populated city in Russia, also saw a cold tragedy toward winter’s end in 2015 when a 20-year-old woman was killed by ice falling 14 stories from a canopy. Blame has been placed on officials for failing to ensure dangerous ice was removed.
9. Killer Dumpsters
Dumpster diving is a popular activity for the homeless, those trying to save a few dollars, or certain “freegans” trying to make a political or economic statement about thrown away food. Yet another kind of dumpster diving (for dumpster contents that are not garbage) have claimed several lives, prompting calls for a ban. These are the clothing donation bins that have caused seven deaths Canada-wide since 2015. The complicated mechanism of these bins, designed to prevent theft can crush people between metal plates aided by their own body weight as they reach into the bins in an attempt to retrieve clothing.
The problem is worst in Canada, for reasons still in question, but deaths have occurred elsewhere globally but in fewer numbers. People have been found dead in clothing donation bins, while in other cases, screams were heard but the victim died of crushing and suffocation before they could be helped. For example, help came too late to save one woman whose vehicle was still running beside a bin that she entered at night, only to get caught up and be left hanging from broken limbs. Efforts to curb the deaths include outright bans or voluntary removals of bins in certain jurisdictions, along with engineering team efforts to design a safer system.
8. Stray Bullet Strikes
Stray bullets can arise from surprising sources and travel in the strangest trajectories, killing people in cities who had nothing to do with either celebrations, gang violence, or warfare. Bullets travel farther than people commonly understand, less accurately than often believed, and can ricochet or achieve a lethal potential falling in an arc after being fired into the air. A growing number of people in the United States have lost their lives when a bullet entered their home or hit them in the street. Just one Baltimore street saw a three-year-old killed and then a nine-year-old girl injured by stray bullets in two separate incidents. These cases of accidental urban shootings are examples of a growing problem. Between March 2008 and February 2009, over 300 people were hit by stray bullets in the United States.
A variety of demographics were represented in an analysis of those hit, and those who were identified as responsible in stray bullet cases. Shockingly, children formed 30 percent of the victims. The urban threat is not primarily a street issue, as 68 percent of victims were struck indoors, including 40 percent being accidentally shot in their own homes. There is also an urgent need to stop the celebratory firing of live rounds at events such as New Years around the world. Senseless fatalities, such as the 2014 deaths of two children in the Philippines when bullets fired to celebrate New Years struck them in their home, serve as an example.
7. Airplane Crashes
Urban airplane crashes kill more people than you would think. Look out: the sky is not falling, but its contents just might. We might think of aircraft travel as safe, but when accidents happen, they are notably catastrophic a lot of the time. Furthermore, those on the ground are at risk, especially in cities. Tall buildings present easily struck obstacles, while lower buildings and roads may be hit if a runway is missed. Global aviation disaster records show around 200 crashes that caused fatalities on the ground. The single worst ground fatality event in aviation history resulting from an accident was the crash of an Air Africa Antonov-An-32B into a street market in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed at least 225 and injured.
In 1992, a notable disaster took place when approximately 100 people in an apartment building in Amsterdam lost their lives as an airliner flew into the building, causing an immense fireball. Terrorism caused the most serious incidents, the 9/11 terrorist attacks killing more than 2,500 people on the ground. Large aircraft are also known to shed heavy parts, but a more common danger comes from small planes crashing in suburbs, such as one recent case in Southern California where four people in a house died when an 8-seater Cessna broke up in mid-air and caused the house to explode into a fiery mass upon impact.
6. Accidental Drug Exposures
The use of illegal “recreational” drugs presents significant risks to users. However, as prohibited street drugs get more potent and deadly, the potential for collateral damage in urban areas to non-users rises. The appearance of fentanyl as an illegal substance often used to cut less potent drugs poses an extreme threat to law enforcement and the public. An increasingly abused substance on the streets that is of medical origin, fentanyl often comes in a fine powder. If inhaled, even a tiny amount of this drug (that is around 50 times stronger than most forms of heroin) may dangerously inhibit respiratory function, easily causing death. In one case, first responders assisting an overdose victim themselves experienced symptoms of an overdose, prompting emergency management authorities to highlight the risks of accidental exposure.
If this was not enough, another substance originating from fentanyl, carfentanil, is around 100 times more potent than regular fentanyl. Terrifying! In addition to the growing threat caused by these rogue opioids proliferating in world cities, drug use poses other threats. Discarded needles are becoming ubiquitous, showing up in garbage cans, at bus stops, and in playgrounds, parks, and even townhouse common grounds. Accidental sticking with discarded needles may lead to exposure to bloodborne diseases if accidentally touched in a way that the skin of the unwitting handler is broken. Means of exposure include handling garbage, walking in grass, or picking up clothing in which a needle is present.
5. Extreme Smog
Major urban centres like Los Angeles, Beijing, and London continue to provoke health conditions and contain significant quantities of toxic smog. Extreme incidents involving smog have marked some of the low points of urban history, the London Killer Fog of 1952 being one of the most notorious examples. The fog only lasted five days, but the chemical reaction between sulfur dioxide, natural fog, and nitrogen dioxide, creating highly corrosive sulfuric acid fumes in the city. Poisoned badly, 12,000 people died, while 150,000 were so sick they required hospitalization. By 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed to get control of the deadly risks of urban coal burning.
Despite the improvements, London today still has air that has become comparable to New Delhi or Beijing, two large cities known for their frequent air quality advisories. London’s problem with nitrogen dioxide continues, exacerbated by sunlight, which produces ozone pollution. Cities such as New Delhi, however, suffer from worse particulate pollution, yet the levels of potentially life-shortening nitrogen dioxide in London are significantly worse than conditions in a city as large as New York, putting a strain on health services. Air pollution in China causes around 1.1 million premature deaths annually, part of a constellation of problems that prompted Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang to declare “war on pollution” in China, with the intention of “making our skies blue again.” Efforts are focused on reducing steel production and coal-fired energy generation, which are key polluters.
4. Freak Urban Floods
Cities are often built in low-lying areas, while the removal of vegetation and construction beside watercourses in urban areas exacerbates flooding. Urban floods are especially dangerous due to the presence of electrical wires, with electrocution a noteworthy result of certain urban floods. Even in areas that might be thought of as being more dry, flash floods can pose an extraordinary risk in urban locales. In the large Saudi Arabian city Jeddah, 2009 and 2011 saw floods roar through the desert city, killing over 100 people. A lack of proper drainage and flood absorbing vegetation presents a challenge that must be addressed through better installation of natural infrastructure such as constructed wetlands and drains to slow and absorb floodwaters.
Furthermore, urban industry poses the threat of some very strange floods. Eight deaths resulted when thousands of gallons of beer were accidentally released into the streets in the “London Beer Flood” of 1814, while the “Great Boston Molasses Flood” in the United States in 1919 killed 21 people and injured 150, when a huge tank full of molasses broke and let out a wave of molasses 15 feet tall that rushed through streets and buildings, creating a half mile long swathe of destruction and death as people were trapped and drowned in the sticky substance.
3. Infrastructure Failures
We typically trust bridges, power pylons, overpasses, and roads to be well constructed. But a surprising number of deaths take place in cities around the world when the stress of everyday use does not match up to engineering projections and design provisions. Infrastructure collapses in developing countries or political jurisdictions without sufficient engineering codes are expected, but it may surprise people how many disasters have occurred in jurisdictions where infrastructure is thought to be quality and safe.
Between 1989 and 2000, more than 500 bridge failure disasters occurred in the United States! It is often not the result of an earthquakes, but floods or the negligence of a single motorist colliding with critical bridge support structures that sets off a collapse. Other times, engineering mistakes fail to take into account the enormous cumulative load from traffic, settling, and torsion or settling forces, leading to gradual failure or a sudden, catastrophic collapse. Collapses of overpasses above traffic are also some of the worst types of infrastructure collapse risks in cities. So, when you are traveling on a bridge, or below underpasses, you might want to think about the merits of not getting stuck under an overpass or on a bridge that possibly leads nowhere.
2. Asbestos Exposure
Urban exploring, where enthusiasts often illicitly traverse old factories, office towers, and tunnels, enjoys popularity but it can be very risky due to the chance of encountering asbestos. Asbestos, once welcomed as a problem solving “wonder material” with its fireproof insulator properties, is proof that the worst hazards are not always man-made, but natural in origin. Massive quantities of asbestos were once incorporated into urban structures of all kinds. Asbestos formed of minute, dangerous fibers can get into the lungs, where they cause serious inflammation and, eventually, lung cancer.
In the urban environment, almost any older building could be a dangerous storehouse of asbestos fibers. Even careful acts of urban exploration may cause ceilings, walls, stairwells, or old insulation panels to give way, releasing asbestos. No wonder asbestos exposure constitutes the number one threat to the urban explorer, according to Jason Robinson, who founded the Ohio Exploration Society. Not only urban explorers, but renovators and construction workers are confounded by the asbestos threat. Many urban construction projects have the potential to unleash massive quantities of asbestos when past construction work is disturbed. Dealing with asbestos is a liability but also a significant business activity, with workers suiting up until they resemble astronauts in a bid to get rid of the danger.
1. Gas Leaks & Carbon Monoxide
Colorless, odorless, and hard to notice, carbon monoxide remains an insidious and quick killer responsible for numerous deaths from small and large scale equipment failures and also installation mistakes. The substance is a dangerous, but formed of two completely harmless substances that make up your food, your body, and the air around you, albeit in a different molecular order. One molecule of carbon binds to one molecule of oxygen in a byproduct of certain combustion reactions, but the danger is much greater than the sum of the parts. Carbon monoxide is capable of physically replacing the oxygen in your bloodstream.
While taking the place of oxygen, this imposter chemical fails to provide the life sustaining support that oxygen lends. Eerily, the chemical has no taste, smell or color and is often not detected until death results, particularly if the victim is asleep. Many deaths have resulted from blocked chimneys, use of fuel burning machines indoors, or leaving a car running in an enclosed space. A number of deaths result every year, while lower levels of poisoning that cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness — or even seizures — may be misdiagnosed. Maintenance of equipment and avoidance of unsafe practices, followed by installation of monitors, are key ways to avoid fatal incidents.