Air pollution makes bacteria harder to kill, research finds

Air pollution is already known to be the largest environmental risk to public health.
Rizwan Choudhury
Woman wearing a real anti-pollution, anti-smog and viruses face mask.
Woman wearing a real anti-pollution, anti-smog and viruses face mask.

Credits: humonia/iStock 

A new study has revealed a worrying link between air pollution and antibiotic resistance, which could pose a serious threat to human health worldwide.

The study, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, analyzed data from over 100 countries for nearly 20 years. It found that higher levels of air pollution were associated with higher levels of antibiotic resistance in every region.

The researchers from China and the UK said that this was the first global analysis of how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance. They also found that the link was getting stronger over time, as more pollution led to more resistance.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics can help cure bacterial infections such as urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Antibiotic resistance is a major challenge for global health. It occurs when bacteria become resistant to the drugs that are used to treat infections. It can affect anyone, anywhere, and is estimated to kill 1.3 million people every year.

Although the main causes of antibiotic resistance are the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. But the study suggests that air pollution is making the problem worse. Bacteria can develop genes that make them immune to antibiotics when antibiotics are used. This causes infections that are harder to cure.

The study did not investigate the scientific reasons behind the link. But previous evidence suggests that tiny particles in the air called PM2.5 can carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes. These particles can be transferred between different environments and inhaled by humans which are otherwise invisible to the naked eye, the authors explained.

Air pollution

Air pollution is already known to be the largest environmental risk to public health. It can cause chronic diseases such as heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer, and shorten life span.

It can also cause acute respiratory problems such as coughing, wheezing, and asthma attacks, and increase the demand for health services worldwide.

The study said that reducing air pollution could help lower antibiotic resistance, as well as deaths and costs from antibiotic-resistant infections.

The study was led by Prof Hong Chen of Zhejiang University in China, who stated that both antibiotic resistance and air pollution were among the greatest threats to global health. He also said that the possible links between the two were unclear until now, but this work suggested that controlling air pollution could have a double benefit. It could reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality and also play a major role in fighting the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The study also showed that antibiotic resistance increased with PM2.5, with every 10% rise in air pollution linked with increases in antibiotic resistance of 1.1%.

Particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers

However, the link between air pollution and antibiotic resistance has become stronger over time. The study found that more changes in PM2.5 levels led to more increases in antibiotic resistance in recent years. The researchers estimated that about 480,000 people died prematurely in 2018 due to antibiotic resistance caused by air pollution.

The study also predicted what could happen in the future if air pollution policies did not change. It found that by 2050, antibiotic resistance worldwide could increase by 17% because of air pollution. This could lead to about 840,000 premature deaths every year due to antibiotic resistance.

The study had some limitations, according to the authors. They mentioned that the overall analysis may have been affected by the lack of data in some countries. They also mentioned that the study was observational, so it could not establish cause and effect. They urged for more research to explore the underlying mechanism of how air pollution affects antibiotic resistance.

The study was published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal

Study abstract:

Background Antibiotic resistance is an increasing global issue, causing millions of deaths worldwide every year. Particulate matter (PM)2·5 has diverse elements of antibiotic resistance that increase its spread after inhalation. However, understanding of the contribution of PM2·5 to global antibiotic resistance is poor. Through univariate and multivariable analysis, we aimed to present the first global estimates of antibiotic resistance and burden of premature deaths attributable to antibiotic resistance resulting from PM2·5 pollution.

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