Scientists and animal welfare campaigners are warning about the dangers of the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals. The BBC reports that there is increasing concern among the scientific and agricultural community that antibiotics are becoming more prevalent in both treated and untreated wastewater from farmland.
This raises the risk of superbugs developing, which are resistant to treatment with antibiotics and may spread among humans. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is already an area of great concern in medical settings, where scientists believe the over-prescribing and inappropriate use of antibiotics in humans has led to superbugs such as MRSA and E.coli.
Recent research by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and World Animal Protection found evidence of high levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria downstream of five large-scale pig or poultry farms around the Welsh borders and south and east England.
It is believed that in some cases, factory farming methods include the routine use of antibiotics as a preventative measure rather than to treat existing diseases. These are then washed into waterways via slurry and manure which is used as a fertiliser. The EU has already banned the preventative use of antibiotics in farming, but the UK has yet to follow.
A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We do not support routine preventative use of antibiotics in animals – they should not compensate for poor husbandry practices and we will continue to look into strengthening legislation in this area.”
The University of Exeter recently reported on a study by a team from the University of Exeter Medical School. They collected data from 67 wastewater treatment plants across the UK over a number of years and throughout different seasons.
The researchers found significant levels of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin in both untreated wastewater and treated wastewater that was released into rivers and streams. This presents the risk of superbugs forming and entering the food chain. It is also a health hazard for bathers and open water swimmers who may assume that the water is safe.
Dr Aimee Murray, of the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: “We need more awareness of the fact that antibiotics are environmental pollutants. When we take antibiotics, they aren’t fully broken down by our bodies, but end up being excreted into our wastewater treatment system, and then released into the environment.”
She added: “This research shows that antibiotic pollution could increase antibiotic resistance in sewage and in some cases, our rivers. Elevated levels of antibiotic resistance pose a greater threat to human health.”
“This is the first evidence of risks posed by antibiotics in the UK in terms of driving increased antibiotic resistance in the environment, and it’s very timely considering current public concern over sewage pollution.”
The areas presenting the highest risk from the release of treated wastewater with high antimicrobial resistance were the East Midlands, the West Midlands, and the South West. Defra commented that a consultation into changing the existing regulations for the use of antibiotic in livestock would take place in due course.
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