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Urban Sprawl Causing Snakebite Spike?

Leonard Gilroy
July 30, 2009, 6:31pm

Over the years, we've heard urban sprawl blamed for everything from pollution to obesity to global warming to social isolation. In my mind, it's hard to blame a nebulous "know it when you see it" phenomenon for such ills, but that doesn't stop utopian do-gooders from trying. Anyway, an article in today's USA Today comes up with a new one that's a gem, suggesting that urban sprawl is to blame for a spike in snakebites—that's right, snakebites:

The American Association of Poison Control Centers receives around 2,000 reports of snakebites each year. Bite reports increased 8% from 2006 to 2007, the most recent national data available, said executive director Jim Hirt. Cities in central Texas and southern California have seen an increase in snakebites in recent months.

Douglas Borys of the Central Texas Poison Center says in the month of June, reported cases in the region were up 35% from 2008. All of Texas saw a 6% increase.

Hospitals in southern California have seen a surge in seriously ill snakebite patients this summer, says Sean Bush, an expert on snakebites at Loma Linda University Medical Center in southern California. Bush, whose son was recently bitten by a rattlesnake in the family's backyard, says he has treated a much larger number of severe cases this summer.

Urban sprawl could be the culprit, says Richard Clark, director of toxicology at UC-San Diego Medical Center.

"We have seen more interactions between people and snakes because of the way we build. I mean, we build schools right on canyons inhabited by rattlesnakes," Clark says.

Riggghhht—the horrible urban sprawl menace has been lying in wait to emerge with its latest onslaught against society, which it was able to manage in just one year with an 8 percent national spike in snakebites (never mind that the housing market was already slowing down at the time of the spike, seriously calling into question the notion that rampant urbanization is the root of the problem).

Luckily, another academic stepped up at the end of the piece with a needed dose of common sense:

The drought and hot weather in central Texas may be coaxing more snakes to cool, shady places around residences, says Lee Fitzgerald, a herpetologist at Texas A&M University. He cautions against oversimplifying: "Everything's complicated in nature, there can be lots of reasons."

Unfortunately, when academics say the same thing about global warming—which would be a very, very accurate statement—then they'd be branded a climate change "denier" or corporate stooge, because of course if the answer isn't "it's man's fault," then it's not useful to the eco-doom-n-gloom types. Substitute "sprawl" as a proxy for "man," and you have a very similar phenomenon in the public discourse over urban land policies.

» Reason Foundation's Land Use and Urban Policy Research and Commentary


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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