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Scientists find air pollution may be driving the rising threat of antibiotic resistance

A girl walks across a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020
A girl walks across a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 Copyright Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo
Copyright Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo
By Lauren Chadwick
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A new global study found that rising air pollution levels correlated with increased antibiotic resistance – one of the biggest threats to human health.


Rising antibiotic-resistant infections and bacteria could be linked to air pollution, according to a new global analysis.

Scientists studied data across 116 countries over nearly two decades, publishing their findings in The Lancet Planetary Health journal on Tuesday.

“Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health,” said lead author Hong Chen from Zhejiang University in China.

Antibiotic resistance is when the medicines used to treat bacterial infections become less effective.

It is considered one of the biggest threats to global health, with a growing number of infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis becoming more difficult to treat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

More than a million deaths globally were caused by antibiotic resistance in 2019, according to a global analysis published last year, while the European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reported that more than 35,000 people die from drug-resistant bacterial infections in Europe each year.

Researchers said that the misuse and overuse of antibiotics is still the main driver of antibiotic resistance but that the new analysis shows that air pollution could also be a contributing factor.

The link between air pollution and antibiotic resistance also strengthened over time, the researchers said.

“Until now, we didn’t have a clear picture of the possible links between the two, but this work suggests the benefits of controlling air pollution could be two-fold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combatting the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said Chen in a statement.

Particle pollution linked to antibiotic resistance

The scientists found that antibiotic resistance increases with PM2.5, which are small particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres. They are dangerous because they can get deep into people’s lungs and even blood.

More than four million people are estimated to die prematurely each year due to exposure to air pollution linked to these fine particles.

This type of air pollution is caused by fossil fuel burning, cigarette smoke and forest fires among other sources.

Every 1 per cent rise in air pollution was linked with increases in antibiotic resistance of between 0.5 and 1.9 per cent, according to the new analysis.

They found that PM2.5 is one of the leading factors driving antibiotic resistance, with North Africa and western Asia being the regions where these fine particulates had the greatest impact on antibiotic resistance.

“Antibiotic-resistance elements carried by air pollutants could be directly exposed to humans, which is a substantial risk as the daily intake of antibiotic-resistance genes through inhalation exceeds intake of antibiotic-resistance genes through drinking water,” the authors said in the study.

By 2050, antibiotic resistance could increase by 17 per cent if policies on air pollution do not change, the study authors added.

The dataset used for the analysis included more than 11.5 million test isolates and covered nine bacterial pathogens and 43 types of antibiotics.

The authors said one of the study limitations was a lack of data from some low- and middle-income countries which are most impacted by antibiotic resistance.

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