Antibiotics in wastewater and sewage contaminating global waterways, boosting drug-resistant superbugs

SOLNA, Sweden — Antibiotic residues in wastewater and sewage works are contributing to antibiotic resistance, a new study warns.

The findings are a threat to human health worldwide as antibiotic resistance could make common medications useless against more resilient strains of bacteria. Researchers in Sweden found the residue of 92 antibiotics in the West Pacific Region, including parts of China, and 45 of them in the South East Asia region, which includes India.

Concentrations of antibiotics which exceed levels considered safe for resistance development were found in wastewater, sewage works, and seas where people dumped their waste. The team says antibiotics found in wastewater and sewage works pose the highest risk to human health.

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In the sea, the highest likelihood of encountering antibiotic levels exceeding the threshold considered safe for resistance development was discovered in drinking water in China and the West Pacific Region. This water was most likely to contain traces of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin.

“Our results can help decision-makers to target risk reduction measures against environmental residues of priority antibiotics and in high-risk sites, to protect human health and the environment,” says Nada Hanna, a researcher in the Department of Global Public Health at Karolinska Institutet, in a university release. “Allocating these resources efficiently is especially vital for resource-poor countries that produce large amounts of antibiotics.”

“Antibiotic residues in wastewater and wastewater treatment plants may serve as hot spots for the development of antibiotic resistance in these regions and pose a potential threat to human health through exposure to different sources of water, including drinking water,” Hanna continues.

Bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics is a global threat that can lead to untreatable bacterial infections in animals and humans. Antibiotics can enter the environment during the production process, and when patients consume or throw them away.

Antibiotic residues in the environment, such as in wastewater and drinking water, can contribute to the emergence and spread of dangerous superbugs. For the study, the team analyzed 218 reports from the West Pacific Region and 22 from the South East Asia region in existing literature published between 2006 and 2019.

They also used a method called Probabilistic Environmental Hazard Assessment to determine where the concentration of antibiotics is high enough to likely contribute to antibiotic resistance.

The findings are published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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