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October 6, 2004

Burney Lecturer: U.S. Citizens Unaware of Water Resources' Limits

Kellogg Schwab

Kellogg Schwab, PhD

Kellogg Schwab had three words of advice for his audience: “Wash you hands! If you take away one thing from this talk, let it be: 'Wash Your Hands.' Anything else you remember is a bonus.”

The assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences was delivering the School’s 6th Annual Dr. Leroy E. Burney Lecture on September 29—“Is the Glass Half Empty? Human Impact on Water Resources” —and he backed up his initial advice by noting that Mahatma Gandhi, who devoted his adult life to achieving India's independence, once declared, 'Sanitation is more important than independence.' ”

Schwab, PhD, went on to tell his audience that most people in the United States are unaware of the finite nature of their water resources.

“In the U.S. we take it for granted that we can drink a glass of water and not die from it, that we can flush the toilet and not have that sewage back up,” said Schwab, whose research focuses on new ways to detect and combat waterborne microorganisms. “We are acting like we have unlimited water resources.”

And how much does the U.S.’s over-indulgent drinking and flushing cost? About a dollar a day per household. “Cable TV can cost $120 a month,” said Schwab, “but we're billed about a dollar a day for this precious and finite resource.”

Serious Sources of Contamination
Schwab's work focuses on the microorganisms—viruses, bacteria and parasites—that pollute our water supplies and that can cause everything from mild diarrhea to death in humans if ingested. He stated that on any one day, 200 million people on earth are afflicted with gastroenteritis from drinking contaminated water; worldwide, that adds up to 3 to 5 billion cases annually and 5 to 10 million deaths.

According to Schwab, agriculture contributes the most pollutants to the environment. And, within agriculture, the most spectacular point-source polluters, he said, are the CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations—the so-called “factory farms.”

He told of one mega-barnyard in North Carolina where over 70,000 hogs are warehoused within a half mile of one another. All the animal waste from these operations is first stored in “lagoons,” then gradually pumped out onto the surrounding fields. But every time heavy rains or hurricanes sweep through the region, the lagoons overflow, befouling nearby rivers, streams and groundwater.

Antibiotic-Resistant Microbes
Another ecologically disastrous aspect of CAFOs: the 24.6 million pounds of antibiotic drugs fed to healthy animals each year in the U.S. (as compared to just 3 million pounds administered to sick humans). For reasons still imperfectly understood, antibiotics make growing animals put on weight faster, so the livestock can be slaughtered that much sooner. Unfortunately, since the germs residing inside CAFO-raised animals are chronically exposed to antibiotics, they can become stubbornly resistant “superbugs” that are not daunted by our wonder drugs.

Schwab and his colleagues found that 69 percent of the bacteria in the CAFO lagoons they investigated were resistant to erythromycin, and that 85 percent were resistant to tetracycline. (No lagoon bacteria are yet resistant to vancomycin because the government has not yet allowed vancomycin—our last defense against some deadly infections—to be mixed with animal feed.) The researchers also found that, every hour, workers inside the pig factories are exposed to over 2,500 airborne microbes, 97 percent of which are multidrug-resistant.

What Can We Do?
According to Schwab, even though water is still priced below its value in this country, we must realize that we are living in a dream world and start conserving water. And we must realize that CAFOs are not merely a source of cheap meat, but that they have other, darker implications for the planet.

Finally, he noted that 500,000 miles of sewage lines snake across the United States, and that along every 1,000 miles of this system, there are going to be an average of 143 breaks. “Let your legislators know that maintaining the infrastructure is important.”

And, said Kellogg Schwab one last time, "Wash your hands." —Rod Graham

The Dr. Leroy E. Burney Lecture was established at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in 1998 to honor Dr. Burney’s life work in public health and medical education. This lecture is delivered annually at the School by distinguished scholars who address public health issues that affect the health of the people of the world.