Sewage treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance

July 21, 2014 by Tamera Jones
Sewage treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance
Petri dish.

Wastewater treatment plants are unwittingly helping to spread antibiotic resistance, say scientists.

Researchers found that processing human, farm and industrial waste all together in one place makes it easier for to become resistant to a wide range of even the most clinically-effective antibiotics.

This is because so many different types of bacteria come together in sewage plants that it gives them a perfect opportunity to swap genes that confer resistance, helping them live. This means antibiotic- are evolving much faster than they would in isolation.

The research, published in Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, says the situation is creating reservoirs of highly resistant in the environment, threatening human and animal health.

It suggests we urgently need to find new ways to process waste more effectively so we're not inadvertently breeding drug-resistant bacteria.

'The way sewage plants mix up different types of waste means they're hotspots, helping bacteria share genes that mean they can deactivate or disarm antibiotics that would normally kill them,' says Professor Elizabeth Wellington of the University of Warwick, who led the study.

Earlier studies have suggested that farming and waste processing methods contribute to reservoirs of resistant bacteria in the environment. But, until now, very few studies had looked at whether or not wastewater effluent contributes to the problem.

'A greater volume of antibiotics is used in farming than in anything else. Huge amounts are used globally, mainly for treating infections in food animals but also to promote growth,' Wellington says.

She and colleagues from the universities of Warwick and Birmingham and the Health Protection Agency decided to see if they could find any of these bacteria near wastewater treatment plants. They analysed sediment samples from both upstream and downstream of a sewage works.

They found many more bacteria resistant to a class of clinically-important antibiotics called third-generation cephalosporins (3GC) in downstream water.

These drugs are broad-spectrum antibiotics used to treat a whole range of problems, including meningitis, septicaemia, and so-called hospital-acquired infections.

Most worryingly, the scientists found that 3GC-resistant E. coli were seven times more common downstream of a UK sewage plant than upstream.

'Our findings suggest that resistance is spreading, because of a gene called blaCTX-M-15. This gene is carried on a mobile genetic element called a plasmid. Bacteria collect these genes to allow them to adapt to their environment,' says Wellington.

'This is a big deal, because this is the most common bacterial gene causing failures in treatment of infections, and it's the first time anyone has seen this gene in UK rivers. The problem is we're use river water to irrigate crops, people swim or canoe in rivers, and both wildlife and food animals come into contact with river water.'

'These bacteria also spread during flooding. And with more flooding and heavy rain, this could get worse.'

A previous study found that a third of people swimming in areas of the River Thames come down with some kind of stomach bug, highlighting the threat to human health posed by rivers. 'You really run the risk of getting gastroenteritis,' added Wellington.

As well as finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria downstream of the , Wellington and her colleagues found E. coli which has become resistant to a less commonly used antibiotic called imipenem in the same region of the river - the first time such bacteria have been found in the wild.

Ticking timebomb

'We've completely underestimated the role waste treatment processes play in antibiotic resistance,' says Wellington.

'Stricter regulations and higher levels of treatment are needed if we are to halt the rise in antibiotic resistance in the environment,' write the authors in their report.

'We're now looking at ways to get effluent cleaner,' says Wellington. 'But we're keen not to point the finger at these plants. There's contribution from everywhere.'

In 2013, Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Dame Sally Davies, described the threat of antimicrobial resistance as a ticking timebomb, adding that it's as much of a threat as terrorism.

'We're on the brink of Armageddon and this is just contributing to it,' Wellington says. 'Antibiotics could just stop working and we could all be colonised by .'

Explore further: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in food products for the first time

More information: G. C. A. Amos, P. M. Hawkey, W. H. Gaze and E. M. Wellington, "Waste water effluent contributes to the dissemination of CTX-M-15 in the natural environment," Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 2014; 69: 1785 - 1791, published online 5th May 2014, DOI: 10.1093/jac/dku079

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Preliminary study suggests possible new treatment for MS

April 20, 2017

A small, preliminary study may show promise of a new type of treatment for progressive multiple sclerosis (MS). Results from the first six people enrolled in the phase 1 study, a study designed to enroll 10 people, are being ...

A promising target for kidney fibrosis

April 20, 2017

When the kidneys - vital organs for filtering the body's entire blood supply - become injured, it can set in motion an unfortunate chain of events that leads to a decline in health. Sometimes, in response to chronic injury, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 21, 2014
Hmmm, that doesnt sound good.
not rated yet Jul 22, 2014
Particularly, sewage treatment plants shouldn't have to be responsible for farm waste. Levy that duty on the farm operators. Require them to prevent the escape of either antibiotics or antibiotic resistant microbes from their farms in any form, whether through products, waste water, or whatever. They chose to use antibiotics; let them realize the full cost of doing so.
not rated yet Jul 22, 2014
Uh, which waste-water treatment plant did the study use? Most of the plants I work on use chlorination to kill all remaining bacteria, and then later neutralized with sulfur dioxide. The water is then run through a stepped waterfall for aeration. There are a few smaller ones that use UV disinfection.

I don't see how remaining organics could survive this. That said, the sludge has to go SOMEWHERE. It might be a good idea to look at where the sludge ends up.

On the other hand, if you did this downstream from a septic field, or down stream from a simple primary treatment plant, then yes, I see exactly how this would happen.
not rated yet Jul 27, 2014
Cooking the waste would be best way to kill bakteria and to hydrolyze remaining antibiotics. Chlorination of organics containing stream may yield to toxic organochlorine compounds.
If only the energy needed for heating the waste would not be prohibitively expensive..

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.