Soil and Antibiotic Guardianship

#AntibioticGuardian was a UK government campaign to increase our awareness of the risk posed to modern medicine by the increasing occurrence of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.  With the recent BBC1 showing of “The Doctor who gave up drugs” the article on “Applying sewage sludge to soil may spread antibiotic resistance” in the Science for Environmental Policy Newsletter dated 30 September 2016 (Issue 472) certainly grabbed my attention.

Whilst this study was undertaken in China , a country that apparently produces and uses the most antibiotics globally, the 2008 SNIFFER Report of a Desk-Based Literature Review of the Human Health Impacts of Spreading Sewage Sludge On Non-Agricultural Land reported that antibiotics as with other pharmaceutical products had been identified in sewage in the UK.  A lack of data made it difficult for the SNIFFER Report to say much on the risk of drug/antibiotic resistance although it did note a study of wastewater from a wastewater treatment plant did show relatively high levels of resistant E.coli.

The need to have greater understanding of the chemicals found in wastewater treatment plants and effluent has led to the funding of a collaborative project between the ten Water Companies in England and Wales and the Regulators co-ordinated by UKWIR.  The Chemicals Investigation Programme Phase 2, 2015-2020 is currently looking at 45 chemicals including 22 pharmaceuticals although it is unclear whether antibiotics is included in this study.  Given that modern medicine is so dependent on the effectiveness of antibiotics surely further work should be undertaken to establish whether spreading sewage sludge on land is assisting increases in microbial resistance.