Quantcast
Health
iStock / Getty Images

Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Are Airborne, Exposing Millions

By Jonathan Hahn

In 1991, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District launched a Spare the Air program to keep residents in the San Francisco Bay Area informed of high ozone-level days, when air is smoggy and exposure to poor air quality poses health risks. Now, the air district might need to update its alert system for something other than just ozone: antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs).


A team of researchers from the U.S., China, South Korea, Switzerland, and France examined air samples from nearly two dozen cities, including San Francisco, Paris, Warsaw, Zurich, Beijing, Brisbane, and Seoul. They discovered airborne concentrations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in each of the cities at varying levels, produced by concentrated animal feeding operations, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and other sources.

Their findings indicate that antibiotic-resistant genes can spread from one bacterium to another, and that this bacteria has the ability not only to travel through the air, but to travel across continents, even across the globe—exposing millions of people to antibiotic-resistant genes whether they live in proximity to those sources or not.

"Common everyday human activities such as car traffic can kick up the bacteria and make them airborne," Dr. Maosheng Yao, a collaborating author of the study, Global Survey of Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Air, and professor of environmental sciences and engineering at Peking University, told Sierra. "Natural winds can also suspend these biologicals into the air."

For wastewater treatment, there is an aeration process that can make biologicals airborne. They are prevalent in areas where human consumption of antibiotics is widespread, such as in hospitals, or where agricultural practices rely heavily on the use of antibiotics.

San Francisco topped the list of the cities with the highest readings of antibiotic-resistant genes in the air.

"We used a novel protocol to get enough air samples from different world cities," Yao told Sierra. "That way we could tell where there were significant differences in levels of ARGs."

The report was published July 25 in Environmental Science & Technology.

Air quality indexes that evaluate how safe the air is to breathe focus on ozone, particulate matter (PM) such as the noxious pollutants emitted from power plants, carbon monoxide and other factors. Those indexes do not include information about antibiotic-resistant genes.

Yet a growing body of research increasingly points to pharmaceutically-polluted environments in cities worldwide, not just involving water or soil pollution, but air pollution as well. According to the new report, airborne pathogens in hospital environments have been found to be multidrug-resistant; indoor air samples taken in communities near animal-farming operations, where the use of antibiotics on animals is widespread, have been found to be rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

For the latest study, Yao and collaborating researchers profiled 30 known genes that are resistant to common antibiotics, including tetracyclines and amingoglycosides, and examined air samples in 19 cities in 13 countries, each with different climate zones. To get their results, researchers employed an automobile air conditioning filter method to collect samples.

Beijing was found to have the highest complex mix of ARGs, with up to 18 different subtypes detected in the air. The most commonly detected antibiotic-resistant genes in all 19 cities were those with a resistance to β-lactams and quinolone antibiotics, with the highest prevalence found in San Francisco, which Yao speculated could indicate heavy use of antibiotics in hospitals there without the proper systems in place to control for airborne emission. The most powerful antibiotics on the market, which are supposed to be reserved for only the most serious medical cases, were detected in six of the 19 cities.

One of the most surprising discoveries from the study, Yao said, was the low level of ARGs in Hong Kong, possibly attributable to that city's high humidity level.

Infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria including gonorrhea and MRSA pose a significant public health risk, with growing fears of the rise of so-called "super bugs." Public health warnings such as from the CDC often focus on the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, providing guidance on the most appropriate practice for prescribing and consuming those drugs.

These sources, however, provide little to no guidance around the possibility of exposure to antibiotic-resistant genes in the air.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Glyphosate applied to a North Yorkshire field. Chafer Machinery / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

EU Approval of Glyphosate Based on Review That Plagiarized Monsanto Studies

The European Union's license extension of the world's most popular weedkiller, glyphosate, was based on a review that heavily plagiarized industry studies, according to a report (pdf) commissioned by European parliamentarians (MEPs).

The new analysis released Tuesday compares whether a risk assessment of the controversial herbicide was actually authored by scientists representing Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) or by the European Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), an industry group that includes Monsanto, the manufacturer of glyphosate-based Roundup, in its ranks.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Rising temperatures and more frequent wildfires in Alaskan national parks could affect caribou's habitat and winter food sources. Zak Richter / NPS

To Preserve National Parks in a Warming World, Reconnect Fragmented Public Lands

By Stephen Nash

The Trump administration's decision to keep many U.S. national parks open during the current federal government shutdown, with few or no staff, spotlights how popular and how vulnerable these unique places are.

Some states, such as Utah and Arizona, have spent heavily to keep parks open rather than lose tourist revenues. Unfortunately, without rangers to enforce rules, some visitors have strewn garbage and vandalized scenic areas.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Emma Bray of Denver, a plaintiff on the youth-led climate lawsuit, Martinez v. COGCC. @youthvgov / Twitter

Colorado's Top Court Sides Against Youth in Major Anti-Fracking Case

Colorado's oil and gas industry breathed a sigh of relief on Monday after the state's highest court overturned a lower court decision that said state regulators must consider public health and the environment in permitting oil and gas production.

The unanimous ruling was a disappointment for the teenage plaintiffs, including high-profile climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who led the closely watched lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The possible site of Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical's ethane cracker plant along the Ohio River, as seen from Moundsville, West Virginia. Brittany Patterson / Ohio Valley ReSource

Taking on Climate Change and Petrochemicals in the Ohio River Valley

When it comes to the fossil fuel industry, we've all heard the promises before: new jobs, economic growth and happier communities, all thanks to their generosity and entrepreneurial spirit.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights/Opinion

A Call for the Food Movement to Rally Behind the Green New Deal

By Ronnie Cummins

"The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan … Half measures will not work … The time for slow and incremental efforts has long past [sic]." - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then-candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Huffington Post, June 26, 2018

Keep reading... Show less
Oceans
The Great Australian Bight is home to one of only two southern right whale calving grounds in the world. Bob Adams / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Seismic Blasting Approved in the Great Australian Bight, Posing 'Lethal Threat' to Marine Life

Australia's petroleum regulator granted permission for seismic blasting in the Great Australian Bight, sparking fierce outcry from environmentalists over its threat to the area's marine life, whihc include endangered blue and southern right whales.

On Monday, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) gave the green light to oil and gas exploration services company PGS Australia's application for seismic surveys off the coast of South Australia's Kangaroo Island and Eyre Peninsula between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Frank Giustra

This Everest Greenhouse Is One of the Highest Gardens in the World

By Frank Giustra

Food has never been the main attraction—or even a side attraction—of my trekking adventures. Instead, it has primarily been an inconvenient necessity, largely consisting of rice, beans and other forms of sustenance. Without fresh vegetables, herbs and garlic, it all starts to taste the same after a day or two.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Madeleine_Steinbach / iStock / Getty Images

11 Surprising Benefits and Uses of Myrrh Oil

By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD

You may be familiar with myrrh from Biblical stories even if you're not sure what it is.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!