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Pollution from personal care compounds may cause antibiotic resistance

By Simon Pitman , 31-Mar-2009
Last updated on 31-Mar-2009 at 13:42 GMT2009-03-31T13:42:46Z

A study conducted by scientists at the universities of Birmingham and Warwick suggests pollution from compounds in a variety of household products could cause antibiotic resistance.

The research was headed up by Professor Liz Wellington, Dr. Will Gaze and Professor Hawkey, with the objective of investigating a link between pollution from sewage sludge, animal disinfectants and fabric softeners and the rise in bacteria resistance to antibiotics.

In the UK a rise in the number of superbugs has been blamed on unsanitary medical conditions and over-prescription of drugs, but the scientists wanted to demonstrate that this was just one of many factors that have influenced drug resistance.

The scientists wanted to do more research into the effects that tonnes of sewage sludge and animal slurry farmers use on their farms every year has on humans once it seeps into the soil and water supply.

Waste contains traces of biocides from personal care compounds

The sludge and slurry contains a cocktail of antibiotic and chemical traces, many of which can be traced back to household products, including a variety of commonly used personal care products, Dr. Glaze stated in his study report.

During the research, the scientific team was able to hone in on the quarternary ammonium compounds (QAC) – collectively known as biocides, which a variety of industries use in large quantities.

The scientific team point out that nearly all household goods and personal care products, specifically shampoos, use these biocides and invariably traces end up in the sludge and slurry that UK farmers use.

Although it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact source of these chemicals and the effect they might have on humans, the team used techniques similar to DNA fingerprinting to detect the presence of antibiotic resistant genes in soil samples from all around the UK.

Proof is in the soil

Dr. Glaze says the results were conclusive, showing that antibiotic resistant genes were present in high concentrations, leading the team to conclude that sludge and slurry used by British farmers can introduce genetic elements known to carry antibiotic resistance genes into the soil.

The scientists say that the most interesting point to come out of the study is the evidence that it is not only the over-use of antibiotics and sanitary conditions in medical establishments that is leading to antibiotic resistance.

Pollution clearly is playing a part too, suggesting that the continued use of QACs by personal care companies is likely to come under the spotlight in future if the problem of drug resistance escalates further.

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