What you need to know:
- Air pollution has been identified as the largest environmental risk to public well-being.
- Prolonged exposure has been linked to severe conditions including heart disease, asthma, lung cancer, as well as reduced life expectancy.
New research spanning nearly two decades and involving more than 100 countries has revealed a connection between escalating air pollution levels and the rise of antibiotic resistance, posing a pressing global health concern.
The findings, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, demonstrate that heightened air pollution corresponds with an uptick in antibiotic resistance across the different countries and continents, with the link becoming more pronounced over time. A 2020 report by World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that antibiotic resistance is one of the fastest-growing threats to global health. It can affect people of any age in any country and is already killing 1.3 million people a year.
While improper antibiotic use remains a significant factor, the study suggests that environmental influences, particularly the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes in particulate matter PM2.5, could be exacerbating the issue. These microscopic particles usually found in smoke and measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, may carry resistance elements between environments and infiltrate human lungs directly, amplifying the threat.
Air pollution has been identified as the largest environmental risk to public well-being. Prolonged exposure has been linked to severe conditions including heart disease, asthma, lung cancer, as well as reduced life expectancy.
WHO estimates that approximately 19,000 people die each year in Kenya due to air pollution, with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) citing 70 per cent pollution levels in Nairobi.
Focusing on the influence of PM2.5 pollution, which stems from sources like road traffic and industrial processes, the study indicates that a 10 per cent increase in air pollution is associated with a 1.1 per cent rise in antibiotic resistance. The analysis also projects alarming future scenarios—without policy changes, antibiotic resistance could escalate by 17 per cent by 2050, leading to around 840,000 premature deaths annually.
Prof Hong Chen of Zhejiang University, China, the lead author, emphasised the interconnectedness of air pollution and antibiotic resistance: “This work suggests that the benefits of controlling air pollution could be twofold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, but it could also play a major role in combating the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
Though the study illuminates a significant correlation, the precise mechanisms and pathways through which antibiotic-resistant genes are transported via air pollution require further investigation. Possible conduits include hospitals, farms, and sewage-treatment facilities that disperse such particles over considerable distances.