While the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has prompted the medical community, non-profit organizations, public health officials and the national media to focus on the dangers of misusing and overusing antibiotics, the University of Georgia’s J. Vaun McArthur is concerned that there’s more to the problem than the misuse of common medications.Mr McArthur, believes environmental contaminants may be partly to blame for the rise in bacterial resistance, and he tested this hypothesis in streams on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site.
The 310-square mile site near Aiken, S.C., east of the Savannah River, was closed to the public in the early 1950s to produce materials used in nuclear weapons. This production led to legacy waste, or contamination, in limited areas of the site.
5 antibiotics were tested on 427 strains of Escherichia coli bacteria in the streams. The research team collected samples from 11 locations in nine streams, which included sediment as well as water samples. The level of metal contamination among these locations varied from little to high.
The results, published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, revealed high levels of antibiotic resistance in eight of the 11 water samples. The highest levels were found at the northern location of Upper Three Runs Creek, where the stream system enters the site, and on two tributaries located in the industrial area, U4 and U8. The level of antibiotic resistance was high in both water and sediment samples from these streams.

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Written by Berte Asmussen