Untreated sewage has a major consequence: It is littering the beaches of Europe with “superbugs.”
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found on swimming beaches in Ireland and researchers are blaming wastewater dumping.
Researchers at National University of Ireland Galway made the discovery. Their finding marks the first time something called the “NDM enzyme” was found on European beaches, according to The Irish Times. It has otherwise been found in less developed countries.
“The enzyme, whose full name is New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, makes bacteria highly resistant to some of the last-line antibiotics available to hospitals,” the report said.
Catching the enzyme can lead to major health problems for people with compromised immune systems, researchers say.
Allowing untreated sewage to flow into rivers and seas is the crux of the problem, according to researcher Martin Cormacin.
“For more than 150 years we have known that the key to preventing contamination by diseases such as typhoid and cholera was to prevent fecal matter that comes out of the bottom of one person entering the mouth of another. But in Ireland we have an 18th-century problem in the 21st century,” he said. “We are still allowing sewage to flow into the sea and rivers because we have not organised ourselves to build the treatment systems we need.”
Here’s how the enzyme functions, per the report:
The enzyme works by causing bacteria to produce carbapenemases. This makes them resistant to antibiotics of the carbapenem family, which are used in hard-to-treat cases. In February the World Health Organisation declared these “carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae”, or CPEs, a critical priority that new antibiotics were urgently needed for. High levels of such superbugs are found in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and southern Europe.
Last year, researchers found a drug-resistant “superbug” in the drinking water in a developed country for the first time.
The discovery of antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria in water samples from France highlights “the presence of expanding reservoirs of these resistance genes, including reservoirs in the environment,” according to a statement from the American Society for Microbiology, which published the findings.
In the U.S., more than 860 billion gallons of raw sewage escape sewer systems each year, according to American Rivers, an advocacy group. Outdated wastewater treatment plants are a major cause for this kind of pollution, the group says.
“There are 600,000 miles of sewer pipes across the country and the average age is 33 years. Some pipes in cities along the eastern seaboard are nearly 200 years old. Some are even made of wood,” the group explained.
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Image credit: "Taken at Baginbun Head (site of the Battle of Baginbun (1170 AD)when the Normans first landed in Ireland) Co. Wexford," david bergin © 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/