Monday, September 13, 2010

Pigs, the Flu, MRSA and you!

As fall now swiftly approaches, I’m wondering about the flu and how severe it might become over the coming winter months. Last year, thankfully, the pandemic strain known as H1N1 fizzled out before it caused too many deaths. It still pays to remember that even on a ‘good’ year the common forms of the flu can and does kill thousands. Anyone, but especially the very young and the old can become very sick. This also includes a person at any age that is suffering from an impaired immune system.

My focus for this blog is on the mega-sized hog farms that are spread out all over the US. Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable of these, killed 27 million hogs last year. Now that's a lot of hogs and it’s not so much the meat I’m concerned about as the shear amount of feces produced. For instance, the 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums. Even when divided among the many small pig production units that surround the company's slaughterhouses that is not an easily containable amount. Many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Smithfield's holding ponds -- the company calls them lagoons -- cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.

Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "over-application." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.

Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing shit to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.

The lagoons themselves are so viscous and venomous that if someone falls in it is foolish to try to save him. A few years ago, a truck driver in Oklahoma was transferring pig shit to a lagoon when he and his truck went over the side. It took almost three weeks to recover his body. In 1992, when a worker making repairs to a lagoon in Minnesota began to choke to death on the fumes, another worker dived in after him, and they died the same death. In another instance, a worker who was repairing a lagoon in Michigan was overcome by the fumes and fell in. His fifteen-year-old nephew dived in to save him but was overcome, the worker's cousin went in to save the teenager but was overcome, the worker's older brother dived in to save them but was overcome, and then the worker's father dived in. They all died in pig shit.

Add to this, the routine manner in which millions of tons of antibiotics are fed to the pigs to stimulate growth, much of which is later excreted into the lagoons, and you have yourself one very interesting scenario. While most of the bacteria are killed by the antibiotics, a few survive. These tend to be resistant to antibiotics very similar to those given to people. Among the more dangerous bacteria, we find Staphylococcus aureus subtype 398 (MRSA), which has recently found itself a new niche to live in the swine population worldwide. This bacteria is methicillin resistant and is dangerous if it colonizes a human being, especially a human with a compromised immune system.

So, this microbe along with a host of other microbes sit in these vats of shit doing what they do best. That is evolving and exchanging genetic information via different pathways. Oh, did I forget to mention that the H1N1 flu virus is present there also? (Honestly, you just cannot make this stuff up). So, what you end up with in all those fields and in all those vats of pig shit are very large and leaky Petri dishes. An informal science experiment that goes on year in and year out. It should be interesting to see how it all works out.

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