Threatening our health
The Dark Side of Factory Farming is a short film produced by Farms Not Factories that summarises the impacts of the overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials in factory farming and the potential consequences for human health. Why we must stop factory farming now.
Antibiotics and ‘Superbugs’
Because of the crowded and unnatural conditions in which factory farmed animals live, they are routinely given antibiotics in feed to prevent disease, bolster their weakened immune systems, promote faster growth and boost profits.
The sheer volume of antibiotics being used may pose serious risks to public and environmental health, primarily because it may contribute to antibiotic resistance in pathogens that cause illness in people (Chee-Sanford 2009, Shea 2004).
Across the world half of all the antibiotics used are administered to livestock. In the US, 80% of the antibiotics sold in 2009 were for use on livestock and poultry, and only 20% was for human medical use (Center for a Livable Future 2010). Around 80-90% of all antibiotics used for humans and animals are not fully digested or broken down, leaving them to pass through the body and enter the environment intact through waste. Once in the water, these drugs can get into people (Chee-Sanford 2009).
Evidence suggests that this over-use of antibiotics is helping to spread drug-resistant strains of diseases such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus) and E. coli, which can cause humans serious illness and death. The transfer of MRSA from pigs to humans is already recognised in the Netherlands, and it is feared this new strain of MRSA affecting pigs in some countries will spread to the UK, exacerbating the existing problem.
An American study suggests people living near an MRSA-positive intensive pig farm may also be exposed to high concentrations of MRSA in the air. Significantly S. aureus was the organism most frequently found: within the pig shed it accounted for 76% of all the organisms uncovered (Gibbs et al. 2006).
Organisms from near an intensive pig farm and their antibiotic resistance
Source: Gibbs et al. 2006
The scientists concluded that the high concentrations of multi-resistant bacteria in the air at distances of (at least) 150m ‘could pose a potential human health effect for those who work within or live in close proximity to these facilities’ (Gibbs et al. 2006). Further studies have also revealed that motorists and those living near the roads used for transporting intensively farmed chickens and pigs to slaughter are at significantly greater risk of exposure to these airborne pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Rule et al, 2008). Proximate water sources are also at risk of contamination, having serious long-term public health implications.
Watch our short film that summarises the impacts of the overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials in factory farming and the potential consequences for human health:
A deadly environment
Studies repeatedly show that air and water quality are threatened in and around factory farms. Noxious gases in the atmosphere from manure containing hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, and dangerous pathogens cause ill health not only to those working with the animals but those living nearby. Many local residents report unusually frequent headaches, eye irritation, excessive coughing, nausea and asthma. Hydrogen sulphide may cause nausea, blackout periods, headaches and vomiting, and breathing in too much ammonia can cause severe respiratory damage.
Excessive spraying of faecal material onto fields results in run-off into nearby lakes and rivers, poisoning the water table, ecosystem and drinking water. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has discovered that 1 in 10 drinking-water wells near factory pig farms contains unsafe levels of nitrates, which has been linked to risk of blue-baby syndrome, in which oxygen cannot reach vital tissues. Six-month-old infants, pregnant women and adults with immunity deficiencies are especially vulnerable.
George W. Bush, in one of his last acts before he left office, proposed to free industrial-scale pig and cattle farms from the Clean Water Act if they declare they are not dumping animal waste in lakes and rivers.
Workers at risk
Research by scientists across the US, Canada, Europe and Australia reveals that at least a quarter of factory farm workers consistently suffer from respiratory diseases, including bronchitis, mucous membrane irritation, asthma-like syndrome, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Exploiting the poor
In the US, intensive pig farms are clustered typically in non-white areas near low-income communities where people are extra vulnerable to the hazards of factory farms because of existing problems of poor health, poor housing, low income, and lack of access to medical care.
- Case Study of a Health Crisis: How human health is under threat from over-use of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming (CIWF/Sustain/Soil Association, 2013)
- Community Health Impacts of Factory Farms (Steve Wing at TEDxManhattan 2013)
- Questions and answers around MRSA in pigs (Pig Progress, 2008)
- MRSA in farm animals and meat (Soil Association, 2007)
A new threat to human health
- Food safety consequences of factory farms (Food & Water Watch, 2007)
- Safety and Health Conditions at Smithfield Packing’s Tar Heel Plant (Research Associates of America, 2007)
- Industrial animal agriculture (WSPA, 2005)
The next global health crisis?
- Health effects of breathing air near CAFOs for feeder cattle or hogs (Von Essen, Sussana G., and Auvermann, Brent W. Journal of Agromedicine. Vol. 10 (4). 2005)
- Airborne multi-drug resistant bacteria isolated from a concentrated swine feeding operation (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, November, 2004)
- Organic farming, food quality and human health (Soil Association)
A review of the evidence