As the poultry industry surges in North Carolina, environmental groups and state regulators are trying to get a handle on the waste that's produced. Local environmentalists are working with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health to find out more. Specifically, they're trying to identify poultry waste by pinpointing it at the genetic level in our waterways. But that's not all - researchers are also investigating the impact of antibiotic use in these animals. 

WFDD's Keri Brown spoke with Will Hendrick of the Waterkeeper Alliance, who says this study is vital to understanding how poultry is affecting our environment.  

Interview Highlights

On why these studies are important:

They're important [because] for one, poultry waste is the largest and fastest growing source of nutrient pollution in North Carolina, and that is straight out of a 2017 report from the Division of Water Resources in the Department of Environmental Quality. In fact, the amount of nitrogen that is produced by poultry waste is three times greater than produced by swine in this state. The amount of phosphorus is six times greater than that of swine. And we've seen a considerable increase in many parts of our state of that waste stream.

We will use this to continue our longstanding push for the state to better regulate the poultry waste management in our watersheds because right now it is deemed permitted, those facilities are not inspected, the agency often doesn't really know where they are, and it's very difficult to respond to a problem that you are blind to, so we are trying to make the state and the general public more aware in hopes that eventually the threat of poultry waste mismanagement will be met with meaningful state action.

On the process for identifying genetic markers for poultry:

We had to take some pure dry litter, so some samples from the waste, and those were obtained actually from the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. But when we are conducting our field work what we are doing is collecting samples of water, surface water from rivers, lakes and streams, and we are looking then for the presence of poultry waste and then presence of that genetic marker that confirms that it's in fact poultry waste, or excrement and not for instance cattle, or swine, or bear, or dog.

On the separate study about antibiotics:

The study is underway and the findings haven't been published, but what we are trying to identify is the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in our water bodies. It's something that is a known problem with concentrated animal feeding operations. In North Carolina, researchers have confirmed this antibiotic resistant bacteria down in the eastern part of the state resulting from swine waste mismanagement, and what we are trying to do is access the degree to which the subtherapeutic administration of antibiotics to poultry also creates conditions in this confinement for mutation of increasingly resistant bacteria.

Some industry leaders say antibiotics are used to prevent illness in birds, and not necessarily for growing, and they see some uses for them. On the concerns over the issue:

I think that it's a problem when they deliver those antibiotics in subtherapeutic doses. There's no problem in treating a sick animal at all, but when you are treating an animal before it gets sick then you are giving that bacteria an opportunity to mutate and become even more threatening. So it matters both because of the health effects, but also because it's a reminder that it's not just an issue that you can push aside as unique to Wilkes County, or an issue that you can push aside as only of concern down in Duplin or Sampson, because when medicine becomes less effective that hurts us all.

On when results of the studies will be available:

We could see the genetic marker research findings sometime this summer. I'm not sure about the antibiotics study, but hopefully by the end of the year.

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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