The Lone Star State is home to an estimated 14 million beef cattle. Now, an eyebrow-raising study found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "super bugs" from Texas cattle yards are airborne and can travel long distances.
"Cattle are putting a lot of bacterial resistant strains into the air in the form of particulate matter, which is coming from dried fecal matter," explained Dr. James Pinckney, a medical expert and CEO of Diamond Physicians in Dallas. "When we raise cattle we'll often feed them antibiotics to increase the size of livestock."
But those antibodies are not absorbed well by cows and are released into the air. The super bacteria that are contained in dried fecal matter become dust, and get picked up by the gusty Texas winds.
The study took air samples from ten commercial cattle yards within a 200 mile radius of Lubbock. The air downwind contained up to 4000% more antibiotic resistant genes than upwind.
But should Texans be concerned? Dr James says there are two schools of thought.
"Some people believe these bacterial resistant strains do not affect humans, and some think that they do."
One thing is for sure: bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotics are spreading. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 2 million Americans are infected with "super-bacteria" each year, causing 23,000 deaths. Super-bugs have in the past been traced to hospitals, but increasingly to livestock raised on industrial feedlots.
Dr James says, now that we know these super bugs are spreading across the country through the air, we need to take the next step.
"We definitely need more data to see if these bacterial resistant strains, caused by antibiotics given to cattle, are harmful to humans," Dr. James said. "We don't have that data yet, but we definitely need to research more."
The Texas cattle industry reportedly criticized the study, saying it misrepresents the bacteria's hazards to human health.
Newschannel 6 spoke with a local veterinarian today, who wasn't too concerned with the findings. He said that these antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been around for thousands of years, and have been blowing in the wind for that long as well.
The study also looked at the amount of dried fecal matter released into the atmosphere that can be inhaled in your lungs. The total amount released by cattle yards in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas exceeds 46,000 pounds per day!