Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria Found in Air Pollution


A troubling new study has reported the presence of genes that are resistant to antibiotics in air pollution.

Despite improvements in environmental innovations over the past 100 years, polluted air continues to be a deadly issue for individuals living in the poorest of countries across the globe. Polluted air contributes to a host of health issues, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and even cancer. Now, a new study is reporting that polluted air is contributing to another grave health consequence: antibiotic resistance.

A recent study published in the journal, Microbiome, is reporting that samples taken from polluted air in the city of Beijing contained “DNA from genes that make bacteria resistant to the most powerful antibiotics we have,” according to a recent press release.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, “more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits.” Perhaps more troubling is the fact that while the entire world is affected, individuals living in the low-income cities are affected the most. This news is particularly troubling in terms of antibiotic resistance because individuals in these areas typically do not have access to adequate healthcare. WHO states that, “98% of cities in low- and middle income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.”

A total of 864 samples of DNA were taken from “humans, animals, and different environments worldwide.” Although only a handful of air samples were studied, of those air samples that the researchers did review, the researchers detected multiple resistance genes, including those that provide resistance to the last-resort class of antibiotics: carbapenems. The results prompted study author Joakim Larsson, MSc, PhD, director of the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research at the university and professor at Sahlgrenska Academy to proclaim, “This may be a more important means of transmission than previously thought.”

The researchers were unable to determine whether the bacteria were alive when they were in the air, but, Dr. Larsson stated, “It is reasonable to believe that there is a mixture of live and dead bacteria, based on experience from other studies of air.”

These alarming results have prompted future research that will look into how these resistance genes are being spread into the air. Funding provided by the Swedish Research Council will allow the University of Gothenburg researchers to study European sewage treatment plants as a potential source for the antibiotic resistant genes. According to Dr. Larsson, by providing plant workers with personal air samplers, the researchers will “study their bacterial flora and flora of people who live very close and farther away, and see if there seems to be a connection to the treatment plants.” This research will be a part of a collaborative international project funded by the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance (JPI-AMR).

As reports of antibiotic resistance continue to grow—particularly in hospital settings—healthcare professionals are updating their antibiotic stewardship practices to take a stronger, multifaceted One Health approach, incorporating human, animal, and environmental strategies to combat this devastating global problem. It seems that now these stewards will have a new and unavoidable mode of transmission to consider when it comes to fighting these deadly bacteria: polluted air.

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