Chinese Sewage Is Feeding Superbugs That No Antibiotic Can Kill

Gwynn Guilford | Quartz | December 18, 2013

Antibiotics have saved hundreds of millions of lives and extended billions of others. But paradoxically, the more they are used the more the bacteria they fight get stronger, with potentially lethal consequences.

While some “superbugs,” as antibiotic-resistant bacteria are known, can be killed with specialized antibiotics, the fear is that others cannot. Case in point: New Delhi Metallo 1 (NDM-1). A gene discovered in India in 2010, NDM-1 causes common bacteria like e. coli and salmonella to grow impervious to antibiotics.

Just-published research shows that sewage treatment plants in northern China are unable to kill NDM-1-spiked bacteria and are also making them stronger.

“We often think about sewage treatment plants as a way to protect us, to get rid of all of these disease-causing constituents in wastewater,” Rice University’s Pedro Alvarez, one of the study’s authors, says. “But it turns out these microbes are… eating sewage, so they proliferate. In one wastewater treatment plant, we had four to five of these superbugs coming out for every one that came in.”