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Bacteria Fly from the Sty
by Karen F. Schmidt
Hog farmers feed antibiotics to their animals to treat infections, prevent illness, and improve growth. Trouble is, that practice leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause illness in humans.
AMY CHAPIN'S CAREER path has taken her to huge hog farms around the country. For several years, Chapin, with training in biology and public health, has been studying how these sites affect the environment and, consequently, human health. An HHMI predoctoral fellow when interviewed this spring, Chapin expected to receive her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences in May from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University.
“Wherever I go,” she says, “I end up working on swine issues,” which apparently have an ambience and staying power all their own. “Its definitely very stinky work,” she admits. Her research equipment and notebooks exude hog odors for up to a year.
When Amy Chapin and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins University took air samples in the barns of one facility, for example, they found 137 kinds of bacteria—98 percent of them resistant to at least two antibiotics.
But the smell is the least of her concerns. Chapin now believes the foul breeze wafting from large-scale hog farms carries antibiotic-resistant bacteria, posing risks to the people who work or live nearby, especially those with compromised immune systems. When she and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins took air samples in the barns of one facility, for example, they found 137 types of gut bacteria—98 percent of them resistant to at least two antibiotics.
The group reported its results in the February 2005 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. “The level of resistant bacteria found in the air was quite striking,” says Marilyn C. Roberts, a microbiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in Chapins study. Thats especially troubling because air is so difficult to control.