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Supergerms from pigs and chickens

I had a story in today's paper about the growing scientific evidence that feeding antibiotics to hogs in large industrial-style feeding operations can breed antibiotic resistant bacteria that can escape into the air, streams and drinking wells.  These supergerms can threaten the health of neighbors and spread in the community, according to researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Even more dangerous is the possibility that overusing these important drugs, by routinely feeding them to farm animals, can make bacteria evolve so that the drugs become useless when doctors need them to save human lives, according to Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at Hopkins.

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Just north of the Maryland state line, Mark and Diane Thomas (below) and their neighbors have called a University of Maryland public health expert to testify against the expansion of a local hog farm tonight (12/18/07) during a hearing of the Delta, Pa., zoning board.

The Thomas family claims that they became ill with headaches, an infection, diarrhea and other digestive problems after their neighbor spread hog manure fertilizer on the fields around their home. They say it contaminated their drinking water and created such a powerful odor they couldn't open their windows.  Now this neighbor's family is proposing to increase the size of their farm, from 450 hogs to 4,400 hogs -- and the Thomases are trying to stop them.  The neighbor, David Gemmill, says the waste from his hogs hasn't harmed the Thomas' water or made them sick. And he argues that the spreading of manure he's doing today is no different than what livestock operators have done for generations.

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The University of Maryland public health expert, Amy Sapkota, disagrees.

Sapkota argues that the confinement of large numbers of drug-dosed animals into buildings called "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations" (or CAFO's) has created a new public health threat.   Sapkota co-authored studies in Environmental Health and Perspectives in 2005 (read it here) and 2007 (click here) that documented antibiotic resistant bacteria escaping into the air from a local hog farm, and also running off into nearby streams and underground water supplies. She points to a study in North Carolina, that found neighbors of these large hog operations reported more headaches, coughing, diarrhea and other digestive problems than the general population.

"It's not just here (in Delta, Pa.) but neighbors of CAFO's across the country have reported similar symptoms," Sapkota said.

There are 67,300 hog farms in the U.S. with 104 million pigs.  The most are in Iowa and other midwestern states, as well as North Carolina.  But Pennsylvnia ranks as the nation's 12th biggest pork producing state, with about a million pigs on 3,100 farms.  Maryland is 33rd on the list, with 34,000 hogs on 400 farms.

But the problem isn't just in pigs -- it's in chickens, too. That is significant for Maryland, which has a large poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.  A study published yesterday by Lance Price, a microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, found that half of 16 poultry industry workers surveyed in Maryland and Virginia were carrying e-coli bacteria (in their intestines) resistant to the antibiotic gentamycin. This made them 33 times more likely to carry these germs than the general population.  Gentamycin is commonly injected into chicks while they're still growing in their eggs.

"Nontherapeutic antibiotics should be banned from all animals," Price said.  "We are really on the brink of a public health nightmare, and if we don't start preserving the antibiotics we have we are on a collision course.... One of the greatest threats to public health today is the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria."

Microbiologist Lance Price (third from left)

Julie DeYoung, vice president of corporate communications for Maryland-based Perdue Farms, the nation's third largest poultry company, confirmed that her company routinely injects chicks with the antibiotic gentamycin while they are still growing in their eggs.  She said the company gives the drug along with vaccines to prevent disease, with the antibiotic functioning as a way to stop any infections that might happen during the injection process.

"All gentamycin and other products...are used as approved by the FDA," said DeYoung.  "Yes, we, like much of the industry, may use it (gentamycin) with vaccine that's injected into eggs."

She added, in her opinion, Price's study doesn't prove anything because the sample size was so small.  "According to our medical officer, gentamycin resistant bacteria is not a public health concern," DeYoung said.

That may be the industry's conclusion.  But other scientists have questioned the whole practice of routinely giving antibiotics to farm animals.

For example, a 1999 article by Dr. Kare Molbak in the New England Journal of Medicine recommended that the use of antibiotics in food animals "should be restricted" after a pig farm was found to be the source of an outbreak in Denmark of difficult-to-treat salmonella bacteria with antibiotic resistance.

A study published in August by University of Illinois researcher Tony Yannarelli in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that feeding the antibiotic tetracycline to hogs created drug resistant germs that were passed like batons from one bacterial species to another, with the supergerms escaping into ground water.

To hog farmers like David Gemmill and his family, such talk about germs from pigs doesn't make any sense.  He said he's never gotten ill from his hogs, and he doubts that any of his neighbors have, either.

"I think it's just off the wall to believe that," Gemmill said of hog bacteria spreading.  "My grandfather lived to be 93 years old, and he was never in a hospital a day in his life....My family has been farming here for over 150 years.  I am the fourth generation and my son is the fifth generation...We've dealt with manure before and it's not a problem."

Gemmill, 54, said the expansion from 450 hogs to 4,400 hogs is a matter of economic necessity for his family.  The 300 acres of grain they grow don't bring in enough money for the family to survive without second jobs.  He drives school buses on the side.  His son, Eric, 24, wants to run this expanded hog operation so he can continue the family's tradition into the next generation.

"If the boy is going to stay here on the family farm, he's got to produce more income or he can't do it," David Gemmill said.

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David Gemmill said he tries not to use antibiotics -- except when his pigs are sick. But the pork company his family may sign a contract with, Hershey Ag., uses antibiotics in all pigs during their first four weeks of life.

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Meanwhile, the Thomases, who live next to the Gemmill barn with 450 pigs, portray themselves as also a family with a farming background that is facing hardship. They moved to their home 2.5 years ago, not knowing that there was a hog farm next door.

Mark Thomas, a Major in the Maryland Air National Guard, served in the Iraq war recently.  He returned to find his family at war with pollution.  As the hog manure was spread on the fields around their home, they found they could no longer drink or cook with their water. The levels of nitrates (a pollutant often from fertilizer) in their drinking well doubled to more than twice the federal health limit.    Meanwhile, both Mark, 45,  and wife Diane, 43, as well as their children, aged 11 and 6, kept getting sick with diarrhea and other digestive problems.

"The smell was horrific, and it gets in your clothes and hair," Diane Thomas said.  "You can't open the windows.  You can't drink the water.  It's very offensive, and sometimes you get these bad headaches."

Mark Thomas grew up on farms and moved from rural Harford County, Maryland, to Pennsylvania, in part so the family could have more space to ride their horses.  But the pig operation next door puts their quality of life at risk, he said.

"We thought, something has to be causing all this illness," he said. "We are not some urbanites who thought it was vogue to go live in a farming area... I have no problem with farmers, farming or the smell of farms...but it doesn't seem fair to me put everybody else's health at risk."

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