Study reveals antibiotic levels in rivers globally

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A major new study of pharmaceuticals in rivers around the world has revealed widespread presence of antibiotics at levels considered unsafe in terms of the risk they pose as a contributor to the spread of drug resistance.

Research led by a team at the UK’s University of York tested at more than 700 locations, monitoring in a total of 72 countries. Antibiotics were detected at 470 of the sites, with 111 sites exceeding safe levels.

“I think we have made a massive step forward with this study,” Professor Alistair Boxall, academic lead on the study, told The Source. “This is the first study to this degree. We are getting data on places where really there was no data before.”

“The level of exceedance was most acute in Africa and Asia,” said Boxall, but sites in Europe and the US also exceeded safe limits. In the most extreme case, in Bangladesh, antibiotic concentrations were more than 300 times greater than the safe limit.

Sampling was carried out in 91 campaigns in a programme coordinated by researcher Dr John Wilkinson. Each campaign consisted of a series of sites running from upstream of a city to downstream of that city.

Antibiotics did not exceed safe limits in 53 of the 91 campaigns, and were not detected in 17 of these.

Presentation of the study at a series of conferences, including the SETAC Europe meeting in May, came just as the World Health Organization had agreed a resolution at its World Health Assembly calling for further action to combat antimicrobial resistance. The resolution calls on countries to strengthen infection and control measures, including water, sanitation and hygiene, and to enhance participation in the Global Antimicrobial Surveillance System.