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Study Shows Link Between Air Pollution and Antibiotic-Resistant Pathogens

Air pollution has been found to carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes.
New research highlights the potential connection between PM 2.5 pollution and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Credit: World Bank Photo Collection / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Worsening air pollution and an increase of antibiotic-resistant pathogens are but a few of the world’s pressing health problems. These issues are causing millions of early deaths each year. Recent research by experts from Zhejiang University and the University of Cambridge indicates a possible connection between these two concerns on a global scale.

Scientists found a strong connection between tiny particles called PM 2.5, which are minuscule bits of solids or liquids such as dust, dirt, and soot in the air, and the ability of bacteria to resist antibiotics.

Antibiotic-resistant pathogens and scientists’ concerns

Evidence gathered from 116 countries over eighteen years paints a concerning picture. The connection between air pollution and antibiotic-resistant pathogens is rapidly growing stronger. This could speed up the arrival of what experts call a “post-antibiotic era.”

In this scenario, superbugs—those formidable, drug-defying illnesses like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—might become widespread.

Scientists have been raising concerns for years regarding the serious consequences of antibiotic resistance. This problem, often referred to as the “silent pandemic,” has largely been attributed to excessive and improper use of antibiotics.

However, a new study, which has undergone peer review, suggests that pollution could also play a significant role. According to this study, the impact of air pollution on antibiotic resistance is noteworthy.

Researchers’ calculations indicate that in 2018 alone, approximately 480,000 premature deaths were linked to antibiotic-resistant cases caused by air pollution.

If no effective action is taken to address this issue in the coming years, the number of such deaths could surge by a substantial 56.4 percent by the year 2050. This highlights the urgency of addressing the pollution and antibiotic resistance challenge.

Convergence of two patterns

The study’s results highlight a concerning convergence of two troubling patterns. Between 2016 and 2019, fatalities attributed to antibiotic resistance surged by over 80 percent, as detailed by researchers in their paper.

Simultaneously, the global state of air pollution is expected to deteriorate due to the effects of climate change.

A study released in March revealed a stark reality. Nearly every individual on Earth is subjected to air pollution levels that the World Health Organization classifies as detrimental to health. This underscores the widespread nature of the air pollution predicament.

During this summer, regions of the United States and Canada experienced a foreboding haze due to poor air quality caused by wildfires. This situation has reignited worries about the health impacts of pollution.

Pollution has already been associated with various serious ailments like cancer, respiratory disorders, heart conditions, and even cognitive issues such as dementia and depression. This summer’s events have been a reminder us of these concerns.

In numerous places around the globe, confronting air that irritates your throat and stings your eyes has become an ongoing battle.

“Pollution has a massive effect on human health even without considering antibiotic resistance,” emphasized Mark A. Holmes, a professor specializing in microbial genomics and veterinary science at Cambridge University, who contributed to the research.

He said, “This correlation between antibiotic resistance and this type of pollution provides another incentive to tackle pollution.”

Unexpected results of the study

Nonetheless, the study holds importance because it stands as the “inaugural report on the connection between PM 2.5 and actual antibiotic resistance cases on a global scale,” as highlighted by the authors.

Holmes expressed his astonishment at the outcomes, deeming them “unexpected.” The findings propose that broadening our perspective beyond merely cutting down on antibiotic usage as a strategy to combatting antibiotic resistance is worthwhile.

Past research has indicated that as local temperatures rise and population density increases, there is a corresponding increase in antibiotic resistance among common pathogens.

In the year 2019 alone, antibiotic resistance led to no less than 1.27 million deaths worldwide, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Furthermore, in December, the World Health Organization cautioned about elevated levels of resistance in bacteria that cause severe bloodstream infections in hospital settings. These levels render the treatment of common infections more challenging.

Contrary to conventional understanding, it is not the patient who develops resistance to antibiotics. Rather, it is the pathogen itself.

With each successful use of an antibiotic, the treatment eliminates susceptible pathogens while leaving behind those with resistance traits. These resistant pathogens then multiply, complicating future efforts in effectively deploying the medication.

Holmes describes this phenomenon as a “simple Darwinian natural selection.”

More research required to determine the mechanism

While further investigation is necessary to uncover the precise mechanism linking air pollution to antibiotic resistance, Hong Chen, a professor specializing in environmental engineering at Zhejiang University and a contributor to the study, emphasized that air has been identified as a significant carrier for the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Chen explained via email that PM 2.5 has been proven to harbor a range of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes. These elements can travel across different environments and are directly inhaled by people.

In their paper, the authors earnestly appeal to governments and the general public to take action, asserting that the consequences of global air pollution spare no boundaries.

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