Small levels of antibiotic residues now being found in rivers

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Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

A new report has found that small concentrations of antibiotics have found their way into a range of Europe's waterbodies.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) report found that the levels of antibiotic residues in drinking water are minute and do not represent a risk to human health.

However, antibiotic residues can be found at higher levels in waste water, surface waters, agricultural runoff and water used for aquaculture (farms of fish, muscles, seaweed and other marine species).

The report is part of JRC efforts dedicated to investigating the implications of antibiotics in water.

Scientists are looking to determine the minimum concentration of antibiotics that could cause resistance in bacteria, so that future limits can be based on risk assessments that take into account this potential.

The report also highlights that the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) (the phenomenon of bacteria resisting the effects of antibiotics) can be constrained if measures are taken to improve the effectiveness of wastewater treatment processes and to control the use of antibiotics in medicine and animal husbandry.

Resistant bacteria regularly evolve in places where antibiotics are commonly used – such as in hospitals where the MRSA 'superbug' (resistant to a wide range of antibiotics) is often found.

On top of this, antibiotics don't simply disappear after they've done their job of fighting off a bug.

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They are excreted from the body and so there's also a risk of similar bugs proliferating in water in treatment plants, in manure and slurry, and in the environment if the concentration of antibiotics is high enough to select for their survival.

The prevalence of antibiotic use has led to growing concern over the spread of AMR. In Europe, about 25,000 people die of infections from antimicrobial-resistant bacteria every year.

It's also estimated that AMR costs the EU €1.5 bn per year in healthcare costs and productivity losses.

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