Scientist issues dire warning as drug pollution in UK rivers to create deadly superbugs

Manchester: Warning issued as river Mersey floods

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The study looked at 258 rivers across the globe, including the Thames in London and the Amazon in Brazil, to measure the presence of 61 pharmaceuticals, such as carbamazepine, metformin and caffeine. The researchers studied rivers in over half of the world’s countries – with rivers in 36 of these countries having never previously been monitored for pharmaceuticals.

The study, from scientists at the University of York, found that pharmaceutical pollution is contaminating water on every continent.

They also discovered a strong link between the socioeconomic status of a country and higher pollution of pharmaceuticals in its rivers, with lower-middle-income nations having the most polluted rivers.

Speaking to, Dr John Wilkinson warned that high concentrations of drug pollution in river could lead to a rise of deadly superbugs.

He said: “Where I think [this pollution] affects humans is through an indirect mechanism, most notably through antimicrobial resistance.

“What I mean by antimicrobial-resistance is the ability of microbes, bacteria or fungus for example to evade the effectiveness of certain treatments like antibiotics or antifungals.

“What we’ve found is that the environmental component is more significant than we may have thought several years ago.

Antibiotic resistance bacteria, also known as superbugs are becoming a growing threat, with the World Health Organisation listing it as one of the top ten threats to global health.

A study found that in 2019, 4.95 million people died from illnesses that were caused or aggravated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dr Wilkinson warned that the high doses of antibiotics in rivers could make certain the bacteria present in those rivers immune to treatment.

He continued: “This is a problem that the UK is not immune to.

“We certainly see pharmaceuticals in some high concentrations in the UK.

“If we’re infected by an antifungal or antibiotic infection, we may take one of these antibiotics, with the intention of eliminating infections and find that they’re not effective in doing that, and the worry is that people can die from generally considered very treatable conditions.”


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A study from 2016 issued a chilling warning on antimicrobial resistance, predicting that by 2050, as many as ten million people could die each year as a result of superbug infections.

Dr Wilkinson continued: “As an example, there are concentrations of these medicines that are put forward as the so-called safe concentration.

“The idea is that if you find concentrations below that safe level, there’s a low risk of developing resistance in microbial communities to that medicine.

“In our study, we compared those concentrations to safe concentrations that we measured in the environment.

“We found that 19 percent of the sites around the world had at least 1 antibiotic or antifungal above the safe level.”

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