Smog can curb effectiveness of antibiotics, posing deadly threat to health: study

A couple wearing face masks talk at a bus station in Beijing. Photo: Getty Images

Beijing's smog is more than just a pathogenic element that can cause respiratory diseases. It poses a deadly threat to health, as it evolves into a carrier and transmitter of bacterial genes that can make various bacteria resistant to most antibiotics.

It is the findings of the latest research led by Joakim Larsson, director of the Center for Antibiotic Resistance Research at the University of Gothenburg, which was recently published in the journal Microbiome.

After analyzing and comparing 864 DNA samples collected from humans, animals and different environments around the world, including 14 air samples taken from the Chinese capital notorious for its air pollution, Larsson's research team found that Beijing's smog carries the most types of microbial communities that contain as many as 64 antibiotic-resistant genes.

In a worrying discovery, the researchers detected several antibiotic-resistant genes in Beijing's smog that are also resistant to carbapenems, a highly effective antibiotic medicine which was deemed to be the last straw to clutch at in treating the most obstinate bacterial infections.

The research has stirred public concerns among Chinese citizens over the possibility that the gene mutation of drug-resistant bacteria will outpace the adjustments in making antibiotics, which will lead to a dangerous situation in which most antibiotics will lose therapeutic effects in fight against illnesses and even routine infections.

Each year, about 700,000 patients around the world die from antibiotic-resistant infections due to the abuse of antibiotics. The death number is expected to climb to 10 million people per year globally by 2050, according to a report commissioned by the UK government, which warned that medicine could be "cast back into the dark ages" unless the world takes countermeasures immediately.

The estimate can also be corroborated in Larsson's research, which showed that there might be "vast sources" of unknown antibiotic-resistant genes hiding in contaminated environments, leading to public unawareness about how serious the threat is.

The research did not give a conclusion on whether the bacteria detected in Beijing's air samples were alive, which would increase the danger. But Larsson said that it is "reasonable to believe that there is a mixture of live and dead bacteria". He further pointed out that the research showed a wide mix of different antibiotic-resistant genes despite the lack of sampling range.

In a recent interview with Caixin, a mainstream magazine in China, Larsson tried to quell the public panic by stressing that the antibiotic-resistant genes are nonpathogenic, which means that most people breathing Beijing's air are not vulnerable to bacteria hiding in the city's air.

Dead bacteria are not dangerous to health, but antibiotic-resistant genes will make it harder to treat bacterial infections with antibiotics, added the scientist.

Shutdown of pharmaceutical plants

In conclusion, the research team called for stricter curbs on waste discharges from the pharmaceutical industry, citing the fact that environments subject to pharmaceutical pollution can serve as hotspots for the development and transmission of antibiotic-resistant genes.

In November, the government of Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern China's Hebei province, urged the city's drug makers to suspend production due to severe air pollution since October.

In an internal notice, North China Pharmaceutical Group Corporation, a leading medicine producer in China, said that the ban was issued by the city's office of prevention and control of air and water pollution, which also imposed curbs on production in the steel and coal-making industries.

The ban is a part of the Shijiazhuang government's efforts to achieve the annual target of reducing the density of PM2.5 pollutants by 10 percent and preventing the Air Quality Index (AQI) readings from hitting 500. China's Ministry of Environmental Protection considers an AQI reading below 100 to be "good" and readings under 50 to be "excellent".

China is a country where the world's 70-80 percent of chemical medicines are made. Waste gas, water and residue discharged from the pharmaceutical factories are identified to be detrimental to the surrounding environments. In recent years, a number of pharmaceutical enterprises have been ordered by the environmental authorities to make a rectification due to their inability to reach the national waste-discharge standards.

Recently, the China National Environmental Monitoring Center (CNEMC) issued a report saying Shijiazhuang is the most polluted city among all cities in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, with its PM2.5 60 percent higher than the average in the region.

Bigger responsibilities

China is likely to take on more responsibilities to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions after US president-elect Donald Trump vowed to quit the Paris climate agreement within his first 100 days in office.

Taking effect in November, the multilateral climate treaty is a milestone in the international community's efforts to combat climate change which can lead to rise in temperature, extinction of many species and extremely bad weathers.

As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China has pledged to the UN to cut its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65 percent from the 2005 levels, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy consumption to 20 percent by 2030 and put a peak on its growing carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

The US' possible withdrawal from the Paris climate pact will give China an opportunity to build its international image by making good on its commitment to tackling climate change.

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