Chlorine used in wastewater treatment may boost antibiotic resistance, study finds

Recent research has shown that chlorine, which is commonly used by treatment plants to disinfect sewage, may not completely eliminate pharmaceuticals from waste, contributing to antibiotic resistance.

The research was presented in Denver at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society by Olya Keen, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

According to Dr. Keen, pharmaceuticals end up in the environment and harm aquatic life because chlorine doesn't eliminate them completely from the wastewater. The increased levels of antibiotic exposure in the environment can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant microbes, thereby weakening human's abilities to fight bacterial infections.

"Treated wastewater is one of the major sources of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics in the environment," said Dr. Keen. "Wastewater treatment facilities were not designed to remove these drugs. The molecules are typically very stable and do not easily get biodegraded. Instead, most just pass through the treatment facility and into the aquatic environment."

Not only is chlorine failing to remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater at treatment plants, it may actually lead to the development of new antibiotics in the water, according to the results of numerous lab experiments performed by Dr. Keen and her UNC Charlotte team.

Dr. Keen explained the implications the research has to drinking water, most of which is disinfected using chlorine. The assistant professor suggests putting a greater emphasis on collecting and incinerating old pharmaceuticals, rather than dumping them down the drain or placing them in the trash, which can lead to harmful environmental exposures.


More articles on antibiotic resistance:
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Documentary about antibiotic resistance, health crisis becomes available online
How rivers contribute to rising antibiotic resistance

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