The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Antibiotics Found in Global Rivers Exceed 'Safe' Levels, Study Finds
Some of the world's most iconic rivers contain antibiotics that exceed safety standards, according to a global study testing hundreds of rivers across six continents.
An analysis looking for more than a dozen common antibiotics in 711 rivers in one-third of the world's countries found that concentrations in some rivers were more than 300 times higher than "safe" levels in what researchers say could lead to more resilient strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria around the world.
"Until now, the majority of environmental monitoring work for antibiotics has been done in Europe, N. America and China. Often on only a handful of antibiotics. We know very little about the scale of [the] problem globally," said researcher author John Wilkinson. "Our study helps to fill this key knowledge gap with data being generated for countries that had never been monitored before."
Nearly 100 testing kits were flown to rivers around the world to water systems such as Thailand's murky Mekong River, the serene Sein River in Paris and London's central Thames. At each location, local scientists collected and froze samples to ship back to the University of York to compare against monitoring data with "safe" levels established by AMR Industry Alliance. These typically range between 20,000 and 32,000 nanograms per liter (ng/l).
"The results are quite eye-opening and worrying, demonstrating the widespread contamination of river systems around the world with antibiotic compounds," said researcher Alistair Boxall.
Concentrations represent a global concern. Safe levels were most frequently exceeded in Asia and Africa while Europe and North and South America also had levels of concern. By far the worst were levels tested in Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh — and the discrepancy between wealthy and poverty-stricken nations is evident. For example, metronidazole, a common antibiotic treatment used to treat mouth and skin bacterial infections, clocked in at levels 300 times greater than the safety level. By comparison, tributaries of the River Thames had a maximum total of 223 ng/l of antibiotic material — 170 times less than those captured in Bangladesh. Trimethoprim, a drug mostly used to treat urinary tract infection, was most prevalent and found at almost half of the 711 sites while bacterial-treatment ciprofloxacin was documented as going over the safety threshold in 51 different tested sites.
"Many scientists and policymakers now recognize the role of the natural environment in the antimicrobial resistance problem. Our data show that antibiotic contamination of rivers could be an important contributor," said Boxall. "Solving the problem is going to be a mammoth challenge and will need investment in infrastructure for waste and wastewater treatment, tighter regulation and the cleaning up of already contaminated sites."
The highest risk sites were those found next to wastewater treatment plants, waste, sewage dumps and places of political turmoil, CNN reports. Regardless of their source, antibiotics in rivers present the potential for bacteria to develop a resistance that further reduce efficacy in human treatment.
"There is no time to wait. Unless the world acts urgently, antimicrobial resistance will have disastrous impact within a generation," wrote the agency in its 2019 report. Researchers suggest that investing in infrastructure for safe water, sanitary hygiene, and establishing standardized wastewater treatment protocols could help protect against such outcomes.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.