They Tested the Air Around Livestock Farms, and What It Contained Will Make You Gag

A new study finds drug-resistant bacteria downwind from cattle feedlots.

(Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

Jan 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There’s no ignoring a livestock facility when you’re sitting directly downwind from it. You don’t have to be close enough to see the fences of a cattle feedlot to know it’s there—the sharp, ammonia reek of the place makes its presence more than apparent.

While it’s well-known that the stench of manure and urine travels, there’s little understanding of what rides along with it as winds blow across open-air cattle feedlots. That’s why a group of scientists from Texas Tech University began testing the particulate matter found both upwind and downwind of 10 concentrated animal-feeding operations around Lubbock, Texas. Unsurprisingly, the results of the study, published this week by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, are as gross as that feedlot smell: Not only is dust made up of cattle waste, but “there is significant potential for widespread distribution of antibiotics, bacteria, and genetic material that encodes antibiotic resistance.”

The agriculture industry buys an impressive amount of antibiotics, scooping up 80 percent of what’s sold in the United States every year. That amounted to about 30 million pounds in 2011, and while not all the drugs used on livestock are medically important to humans, the common practice of feeding livestock low doses to promote growth has raised public health concerns since the 1960s. Despite having its own worries over resistance for more than 50 years, the Food and Drug Administration only managed to pass voluntary regulations to combat the issue in 2013. Meanwhile, antibiotic-resistant infections sicken 2 million Americans and kill 23,000 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prior studies looking at how antibiotic resistance might escape farming facilities have focused on staff. It’s been found that workers can sometimes carry resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, inside their noses for an extended period of time. While that potentially exposes a limited population to drug-resistant diseases, drift could expose larger human populations, and wildlife, to potentially dangerous bacteria.

The authors note that the study was not designed to determine if the drugs and bugs “remain viable” after being blown downwind. But they make it clear that this problem is going to get worse. Last year, more than three-quarters of all U.S. cattle on feedlots with more than 1,000 head were in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. “Together, portions of these states constitute a region which has the highest frequency of dust storms in the United States and the highest density of feedyards,” the authors write.

With climate change making drought an increasingly persistent concern in the West and Southwest, there likely will be more antibiotics and the resistant bacteria they help create blowing off feedlots and into nearby cities and towns. Unless the FDA can finally manage to reduce the gross overuse of drugs in the meat industry, we’ll all just have to hope that they don’t present a health risk.