Basu: Seemingly unrelated events cause
concern over antibiotics, pollution
Nov 15, 2012
by Rekha Basu
One week this fall, three seemingly unrelated things happened.
My dermatologist told me he couldn’t prescribe me the antibiotic tetracycline because doctors and pharmacies can no longer get it. It’s reserved for pigs in hog confinements.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced a prescription drug take-back day on which certain pharmacies would accept leftover drugs that people wanted to dispose of. It was billed by a local news anchor as a safe alternative to keeping potentially harmful substances out of landfills and water supplies.
And my brother-in-law in Massachusetts, newly diagnosed with lymphoma, told me that after reading about links between cancer and diet, he had resolved to eat only food grown without chemicals, preservatives or other environmental toxins.
My mind raced to connect those events.
My doctor, it must be noted, didn’t want me to take tetracycline. I had asked for it because a dermatologist in Florida once put me on it for acne, with good results. So at one level, it didn’t matter that he can’t get the drug — which a pharmacist later told me they had not had in a couple of years.
What matters is the reason: The drug- maker apparently didn’t think the profits from humans were high enough, so it sells to hog producers. And if pigs are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent infection and make them fatter, and we eat pork raised in factory farms, then we get antibiotics by default.
Then there was the drug-disposal issue. It’s great that pharmacies are taking potentially harmful drugs out of circulation — and away from potential drug abusers. It was the fifth time in two years the DEA had organized the event, rounding up over a thousand tons of medicines. But what about the other 725 days, when drugs are tossed out the usual way, to end up in landfills and water supplies?
And that had me wondering about my brother-in-law’s cancer and what our bodies take in.
It didn’t take long to find that researchers in the United States and Finland have linked antibiotic use to cancer. One study showed them to be an even greater risk factor for breast cancer in women than synthetic hormone replacement therapy.
Antibiotic overuse can cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria to grow, which makes the drugs less effective when we need them. Antibiotics can also kill healthy bacteria that our immune systems depend on, resulting in a fungal problem. At least one theory links that to cancer.
Cancer’s causes remain unproven, but we shouldn’t have to wait for conclusive studies to heed warnings about things we know are not healthy. Around that time, I was contacted by people living by Lake Ponderosa in Poweshiek County who learned Prestage Farms applied for a permit to build a hog confinement two miles southwest of their home. They were worried about the effect on air and water quality, and property values. With good reason.
If you go to the Food and Water Watch organization’s website and look up Iowa, you will see the impact of confinements in other parts of the state. For example, in Sioux County, more than 1 million hogs raised on factory farms produce as much untreated manure as sewage from the Los Angeles and Atlanta metro areas combined. And that can be toxic. The report documents numerous manure spills into waterways around the state, resulting in massive fish kills.
Yet inspections and penalties against polluters by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are so inadequate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned that it may take over enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Our DNR typically imposes fines of less than half the amount it could.
In one reported case, there was a 50,000-gallon manure spill into a Dallas County tributary of the Raccoon River, which provides much of Des Moines’ drinking water. That was at least the third spill by that operator in 10 years. But no fine was imposed because only one fish was found dead. Previous spills may have taken care of the rest.
So not only does a drug company put the hog industry’s welfare before people’s, but so, apparently, does the state. Gov. Terry Branstad has full faith in his DNR director. That’s all the governor’s spokesman will say.
What will it take to ensure that laws to protect people are followed? It will take regulators who don’t coddle polluters.
When someone you love has a serious illness — and too many of our loved ones do — it gives urgency to the need for action. As individuals, we can make smart decisions about how we live and what we consume, but we can’t control dangers to our environment that we may not fully understand until it’s too late. That’s government’s job, and it ought to be taken seriously.