A new threat from dirty air

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Article in The Week August 19, 2023

Pollution and antibiotic resistance are, individually, among the greatest threats to global health: antibiotic-resistant infections kill more than 1.25 million people a year; a further seven million deaths are associated with airborne pollution. Now, a study has found that there may be a link between the two. For the research, scientists obtained data on antibiotic resistance in 116 countries between 2000 and 2018. When they then compared it with levels of harmful PM2.5 particles, a clear pattern emerged – when levels of PM2.5 pollutants rose, so did those of antibiotic resistance. Extrapolating from their findings, they estimate that antibiotic resistance stemming from air pollution may have been responsible for 480,000 premature deaths in 2018. The study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, did not prove that the link was causative. However, the researchers speculate that superbugs are better able to spread when the air is polluted; antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes have previously been found in PM2.5 particles. “The benefits of controlling air pollution could be twofold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combating the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said study leader Prof Hong Chen.