The latest discovery about antibiotic resistant "super bugs" sounds more like science fiction than reality.
A new study by researchers from Texas Tech University found that the antibiotic resistant bacteria created by industrial farms are now airborne, meaning even Americans who don't eat conventionally produced meat could be exposed.
Scientists collected samples of particulate matter upwind and downwind of 10 large cattle yards near Lubbock, Texas for the study. Researchers found that the cows stirred up dried fecal matter from their pens, which was then picked up by the wind. The air downwind of the factory-farmed cattle contained antibiotics, bacteria and a greater number of microbes that could sustain antibiotic resistant genes.
To put this into perspective, researchers said these findings highlight the "significant potential for widespread distribution of antibiotics, bacteria, and genetic material that encodes antibiotic resistance" through the air.
The widespread use of antibiotics on farm animals is the cause of these "super bugs." Farmers often give cattle, pigs and chickens low doses of antibiotics to speed up their growth. The extremely low levels of antibiotics aren't enough to kill bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, so these strains instead adapt to become resistant to the drugs. You might also be familiar with another antibiotic resistant illness: MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a dangerous infection common in hospitals.
And this is an extremely common practice. The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use on U.S. farms in 2009. Only 7.7 million pounds were used to treat humans in the same year.
Just how dangerous is this trend? At least 23,000 people die each year from infections that are resistant to antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization has warned that we might be nearing the "post-antibiotic era," where common infections and diseases that were once simple to treat could become deadly.
Though it won't protect you from airborne bacteria, shopping for USDA-certified organic meat will keep antibiotics out of your food. Plus, every organic purchase supports farmers who aren't contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont