This is what happens when you try to beat Mama Nature into submission. She hits you back. Hard.
It sounds like a nightmarish plot of a Michael Crichton science-fiction thriller: Mutant, antibiotic-resistant microbes that go airborne and spread in the wind, infecting people far and wide who have the misfortune to breathe in the "superbugs."
The problem, according to a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is that the scary scenario may not be fiction. Texas Tech University researchers Phil Smith and Greg Mayer have discovered that DNA from antibiotic resistant bacteria spawned in cattle feedlots — where the drugs are added to healthy animals' food to promote growth — in the winds that blow dust out of the lots.
"This is the first test to open our eyes to the fact that we could be breathing these things," Smith, an environmental toxicologist, told the Texas Tribune.
Over a six month period, Mayer and Smith collected dust samples in the vicinity of 10 commercial cattle feed yards over six months, using a vacuum to gather dust from county roads and then testing it for the gene sequences that Mayer calls the bacteria's fingerprints.
Each year, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and about 23,000 of them die as a direct result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency, which is tracking the problem, provides this continuously-updated list of the most serious emerging microbial threats.
Overuse of antibiotics by humans is a major cause of antibiotic resistance, but CDC also says that long-term, low-level veterinary doses of antibiotics routinely given to farm animals can lead to the development and growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well. While some of the antibiotics given to animals are ionophores, a type not given to humans, many are the same drugs. About 70% of the antibiotics produced are given to animals, according to PolitiFact.
The researchers report that more than three quarters of U.S. cattle on feed lots reside in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, which as a region have the highest frequency of dust storms in the U.S.