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Pollution Leads To More Resistant Bacteria

By Kieran Ball - 28 Feb 2011 15:59:0 GMT
Pollution Leads To More Resistant Bacteria

Swedish scientists have discovered that antibiotic factories in India, where there is a huge pharmacological manufacturing industry, have been pumping massive doses of antibiotics into rivers.

The result has been that bacteria in the rivers are becoming resistance to more types of antibiotics. The big fear is that this will result in more diseases becoming untreatable by antibiotics on a worldwide scale.

Scientists at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, working in partnership with others at Chalmers University of Technology and Umea University have found through DNA sequencing that bacteria in Indian rivers are more resistant to antibiotics than anywhere else in the world.

This is thought to be down to the antibiotic production facilities that line many of India's rivers dumping waste pharmaceuticals. The antibiotics inevitably find their way into the soil and sewage treatment plants where they come into contract with other bacterial organisms

Dave Ussery, a microbiologist at the Technical University of Denmark explains the danger of the potential consequences: 'Even if the bacteria found are not dangerous to humans or other animals in the area, they may transfer their resistance genes to bacteria that are.'

The journal Nature has described the results as 'worrying' and, rightly so. Since bacteria can and will migrate to other ecosystems, the fallout could extend well beyond the borders of India, affecting the entire planet.

Resistant bacteria have already been found in environments where there was no exposure to antibiotic pollution.

Bjorn Olsen, an infectious-disease specialist at Uppsala University in Sweden compares the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance with volcano-ash.

'The cloud is going to drop down somewhere else, not just around the sewage plant.'

However, this phenomenon isn't just an Indian problem. On a worldwide scale, biocides, such as everyday disinfectants, antiseptics, cleaning products and even those found in personal care products, such as shampoo and soap, are also contributing to the problem. There is a particular concern regarding repeated exposure at low levels of biocide from household sources, which could promote resistance in normally vulnerable bacteria.

The ways that bacteria develop immunity to biocides are complex and not fully understood yet, but perhaps the question we should be asking is: could the discharge from our sewage plants be promoting bacterial resistance in the wider environment?

If so, by letting these antibiotics and biocides into the environment without further treatment, are we going to be responsible for a untreatable 'superbug' - one that we ourselves created?