Waste from Pharmaceutical Plants in India and China Promotes Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs

Henry A. Waxman and Bill Corr | STAT | October 14, 2016

Superbugs, disease-causing microbes that have mutated to become resistant to antibiotics, are a threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people today and many millions tomorrow. These organisms turn curable illnesses such as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and pneumococcal pneumonia into deadly ones. This looming public health disaster has many causes. Overuse of antibiotics by humans and the routine use of antibiotics to help farm animals grow faster are key causes in the United States. One worrisome cause that has received virtually no attention until now is wastewater from drug manufacturing facilities in India and China, where a large portion of the world’s antibiotic supply is produced.

The US Food and Drug Administration guarantees the safety of all prescription drugs sold in our country no matter where they are made, so we can take antibiotics with confidence. However, the FDA has no jurisdiction over drug manufacturing pollution in foreign countries. Recent reports indicate that Indian and Chinese drug makers routinely release untreated waste fluid containing active ingredients into surrounding soil and waterways. One study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials showed antibiotic concentrations downstream of drug manufacturing plants in these countries that exceed those expected in someone being treated for infection. 

Researchers from Rice, Nankai, and Tianjin universities concluded that for every bacterium that entered a waste treatment plant in northern China, four or five antibiotic-resistant bacteria were released into the water system. Pharmaceutical pollution of any type can be deadly, threatening habitats and poisoning drinking water. But antibiotic pollution doubles down on the dangers. The release of antibiotics into soil, streams, rivers and lakes creates a perfect storm for antimicrobial resistance to develop and spread. This isn’t just a local disaster, because superbugs have no respect for national borders. Microbes travel freely through air and water...