Dangers of the Prescription Pad
You don’t like being sick. No one does. If you do get ill, you can turn to a doctor, to modern science. Drugs, namely antibiotics, have allowed humans and animals alike to live for many extra years. The use of antibiotics in livestock feed has been able to supply humans with meat efficiently and reliably. So, what have we done? We’ve made hand-soaps, wet wipes, dish soap, and everything else in the world antibacterial. Seems carefree, but risk-free? Hardly.
In my twenty weeks of “Critical Thinking and Writing”, I’ve done research, conducted interviews, and read books to learn about the factory farm. It wasn’t until I fully understood the ins-and-outs of the food industry when I realized how ignorant most of the population was of what goes on behind closed doors. As a biomedical engineer, I thought it would be interesting to combine my technical classes with my undergraduate core curriculum theme and study the use of antibiotics in daily life as well as in industrial food production. Overuse of antibiotics is not a well-known problem because the dangers are so well hidden from the public. “Many consumers fear that neither the facts regarding the consequences of drug use in food animals are being made available nor animal-derived food available that allow them to select safe products” (National Research Council).
What you should know
While we like to live in comfort and paramount hygiene, focusing heavily on preventing and exterminating bacteria is playing with fire. How dangerous is the flame? We have no idea – and that’s the scary part about it. The first danger of antibiotic use is it’s increasing popularity in products combined with its decreasing effectiveness. The chances of a gene to mutate to resist a drug in a single bacteria cell are tiny, perhaps one-in-a-billion. Yet billions bacterial cells can be found in a teaspoon of the dirt in your lawn (MicrobeWorld). Microbiologist Dr. Glenn Morris reports that if humans ingest resistant bacteria in the food animal then he/she could not respond to antibiotic treatment (Frontline Editors). If you think this seems like a pretty big deal to not be treated as a pretty big deal on product labeling and advertisement, we would have that in common. Yet, the corporate paradigm of “what they don’t know won’t hurt them”, which my class now knows all-too-well-about, is shrouded in mystery and is still condoned by regulators.
The second danger is the loss of awareness into what goes into our food. There will always be the question of who controls what goes into each box on the shelves because it sure isn’t one of us.
It’s one of them, one of the suits who don’t necessarily prioritize the health of the consumer nor the animal, in the case of factory farms. Researcher Stuart B. Levy, M.D., reported that a large amount of antibiotic use in food animals are used “sub-therapeutically… [he] estimates 15-17 million pounds” (Frontline Editors). This astronomical figure called for extensive research and reevaluation by the World Health Organization, who last month published their first global report on antibiotic resistance and the life-threatening infections caused by common intestinal bacteria.
The third danger in antibiotic use is the damage the drugs do to the ‘good bugs’ inside of us. TIME magazine published an article on the human genome and how antibiotics are killing many of the good bacteria that, inside us, outnumber our human cells 10 to 1 (Park). Meanwhile, Martin Blaser, an expert on the microbiome, spoke on the National Public Radio to explain how antibiotic use is to blame for our missing microbes, our functional makeup designed by nature (Blaser).
Hospitals have been increasingly over-prescribing their patients, large farms have been routinely dosing their livestock in order to maximize growth and survival rate, and even your bathroom sink has a good chance of containing antibacterial properties which you don’t necessarily need (Amos). Not only does this hold potential danger on the microscopic scale that could be the secret to disorders like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, it also holds an inevitable disaster of a resistant superbug in the future.
Why this is important
I didn’t choose this topic to nail on corporations. I chose it because it has something to do with my daily life, and is a growing problem that I will have to research in a lab in my undergraduate career. In David Foster-Wallace’s commencement speech, dubbed “This is Water”, he explains the importance of an education which isn’t measured by knowledge, but rather by the ability of being aware of the everyday things that surround us. With a bit of research, I found baffling facts that contradict the things I took for granted with antibiotics and my food. For example, in the poultry industry, eggs can still be labeled organic if they are injected with vaccines and antibiotics prior to the second day of life (Philpott). Although John Glisson, a veterinarian for the US Poultry & Egg Association admits that the practice was originated decades ago to prevent common diseases and antibiotics were used to maintain sterility, this practice of shooting up a chicken before it hatches has become another secret loophole (Philpott).
By approaching everything with skepticism and always insisting on evidence, we can prevent ourselves from being fooled and can keep ourselves (and our neighbors) healthy from…well…medicine. Just because antibiotics are available doesn’t mean we should be living an unhealthy lifestyle so we end up needing them.
Our overuse of antibiotics has caused a culture where we can allow ourselves to live an unhealthy lifestyle and still live longer than our ancestors, and our animal products have been turned into efficient, artificial creations that would rapidly die of disease if they weren’t pumped full of modern medicine (Foer). Thus, we rely directly and indirectly on something that is starting to be proven as detrimental to our health. While antibiotics can target the bad bugs that target our bodies, our overconsumption of them will shake the boat that is our body’s equilibrium, a peaceful symbiosis with our biome and the bacteria that it is comprised of (Blaser).
Moving forward, it would be wise to reduce both our unnecessary consumption and indirect reliance on antibacterial products, at least until we fully comprehend the consequences it can have in foresight pathogenic studies and our fabric as a species. No matter what alterations we make or solutions we adopt, we must always pay close attention to the risk involved with the use of antibiotics. Let’s make it a last-resort option.
Amos, Amy M. “Antibacterial Everything Really Is a Bad Idea.” Pacific Standard. N.p., 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 May 2014.
Blaser, Martin. “Modern Medicine May Not Be Doing Your Microbiome Any Favors.” Interview by Terry Gross. National Public Radio. 14 Apr. 2014. Radio.
Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print
Glickman, Dan, and Patrick Boyle. “How Safe Is America’s Meat Supply?” Interview by Frontline Editors. PBS. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/safe/safety.html>
Frontline Editors. “Is Your Meat Safe?” PBS. PBS. Web. 17 May 2014.
“MicrobeWorld.” Bacteria. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2014.
National Research Council. The Use of Drugs in Food Animals: Benefits and Risks. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 1998. Print.
Park, Alice. “Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Are Now In Every Part of the World.” TIME 30 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. 1 May 2014.
Philpott, Tom. “Wait, We Inject Antibiotics into Organic Chicken Eggs?!”Mother Jones. N.p., 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 May 2014.
Raedle, Joe. Interview: Martin Blaser. Digital image. National Public Radio. 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 May 2014.
This Is Water. Dir. Matthew Freidell. Prod. Allie Dunning and Jeremy Dunning. By David Foster Wallace. Youtube. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKYJVV7HuZw>.
Thomas, Glenn. “WHO’s First Global Report on Antibiotic Resistance Reveals Serious, Worldwide Threat to Public Health.” World Health Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.
Todar, Kenneth.”Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics.” Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics. Web. 19 May 2014.