Particulate pollution is worsening a crisis in antibiotic resistance that is already killing an estimated 1.3 million people per year, concludes a new study that spanned more than 100 countries and nearly two decades.
The analysis by researchers from China and the United Kingdom, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal earlier this month, “indicates that increased air pollution is linked with rising antibiotic resistance across every country and continent,” The Guardian reports. “It also suggests the link between the two has strengthened over time, with increases in air pollution levels coinciding with larger rises in antibiotic resistance.”
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Antibiotic resistance has been a problem for decades, and it’s still caused primarily by overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans and veterinary care. The more a new drug is used, the less time it takes to lose its effectiveness, as rapidly-evolving bacteria begin to develop immunity. As far back as the late 1990s, medical researchers also believed that different types of bacteria could trade genes, allowing resistance to specific drugs to spread more quickly.
Drug-resistant bacteria get a head start anytime anyone stops taking their antibiotics because they felt better before their prescription were used up, and anytime a factory farm injects herds of livestock with antibiotics to prevent a disease before it breaks out. The result that doctors and researchers have been scrambling to ward off is that common infections like staph could become deadly because there are no drugs available to treat them—just as they were until the first antibiotic, penicillin went into widespread use in 1943.
Air pollution was already recognized as the biggest environmental risk to human health, with long-term exposure linked to chronic conditions like heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer. Now, the new research shows the risk of antibiotic resistance being amplified by air pollution of all kinds—like emissions from fossil-fuelled power plants and refineries and gas stoves, and particulates and other pollutants in wildfire smoke.
“Evidence suggests that particulate matter PM 2.5 can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria and resistance genes, which may be transferred between environments and inhaled directly by humans,” The Guardian writes. So “controlling air pollution could greatly reduce deaths and economic costs stemming from antibiotic-resistant infections.”
“Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health,” said lead author Prof. Hong Chen of China’s Zhejiang University. “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 twofold: 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.”
The study authors acknowledged limitations in their own data and called for further research to better understand how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance. But based on the available information, they concluded that every 10% rise in PM 2.5 increases antibiotic resistance by 1.1%. By 2050, with no changes to current policies, air pollution could trigger a 17% increase in drug resistance, leading to 840,000 premature deaths in that year.