Water plastics harbour resistance genes

3 minute read

As if the pollution wasn’t bad enough in its own right.

Your Back Page correspondent considers himself a glass-half-full kind of a guy.

Perhaps this is a by-product of being a child in the 1960s when the promise of technological advancements seemed boundless and a future full of flying cars and self-cleaning clothes seemed just around the corner.

We have to admit, however, that maintaining an air of optimism these days seems quixotic in the face of a steady stream of evidence of how we are stuffing things up to such an extent that it’s going to take something pretty special to reverse the damage.    

Take waterways pollution, for example. It’s not bad enough that plastics and paddle pop sticks in our streams and rivers are awful to look at and cause untold damage to the flora and fauna; we now discover this debris is creating an additional, and significant, human health hazard.     

In disturbing research published this week in the journal Nature: Microbiome we learn that this plastic and wooden detritus not only can harbour potentially pathogenic microbes, it can also act as reservoirs for antimicrobial resistance genes.

You read that correctly. Antimicrobial resistance, which the WHO reckons is already one of the top 10 public health threats facing humanity, is being made even more dangerous by all the plastic and wooden crap we are dumping in our water courses.

What the researchers – from the Universidad de Antofagasta, University of Warwick and University of the Balearic Islands – did was to compare the microorganisms living on wood and plastics submerged downstream from a wastewater plant with those living in the surrounding waters.

What they found was the microbial communities living on plastic and wood contained similar pathogens that were distinct from those in surrounding waters. What’s more, they each harboured genes for resistance to different types of antimicrobials, with degraded plastics having particularly significant amounts of antimicrobial resistant genes.

The authors wrote that a pathogen called P. aeruginosa, which can cause infections in hospital patients, was particularly abundant on the degraded plastic samples and speculated thiscould be due to degraded plastics releasing larger amounts of organic compounds that encourage microbial growth than new plastics.

Unsurprisingly, the boffins suggest further research is warranted to more fully assess the potential risks that plastics and wood pollution poses to global health via the spread of antimicrobial resistance genes.

In the meantime, speeding up our efforts to cut back on plastics use in the first place does seem a bit of a no-brainer.

Send degraded story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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