Plastic litter in rivers has long been a cause for concern, but a new study sheds light on an alarming consequence. Researchers have discovered that the presence of plastic, along with wooden sticks and the water itself, creates an optimal environment for the growth and spread of dangerous pathogens. The implications of this finding are significant, as these pathogens are known to cause human diseases and contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
Led by Vinko Zadjelovic of the University of Antofagasta in Chile, the study focuses on a river in the UK to examine the relationship between plastic litter and pathogen transport. The researchers found that freshwater bodies contaminated with plastic become potential carriers of pathogens and antibiotic resistance genes. This discovery has profound implications for human health and highlights the urgent need for action.
Antibiotic resistance is a critical issue that poses a growing threat to public health. According to the study, infections related to antibiotic resistance were responsible for an estimated 2.7 million deaths worldwide in 2019. If left unchecked, this number is predicted to soar to 10 million deaths by 2050. The presence of plastic in freshwater bodies only exacerbates this problem, as it provides a platform for the transportation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes.
When plastic waste enters waterways, the surface of the plastic becomes quickly overrun by microbes. To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers submerged samples in the River Sowe, located in Warwickshire and West Midlands, England. Over the course of a week, they observed significant differences in the types of microbes present depending on the material sampled.
The water samples collected in February 2020 revealed the presence of human pathogens, including Salmonella, Escheria (E.Coli), and Streptococcus. These findings underscore the need for stricter monitoring of wastewater treatment plants, as the treated water still harbored harmful microorganisms. Wastewater treatment plants play a crucial role in reducing microbial hazards, but their effectiveness must be improved to safeguard human and environmental health.
Interestingly, the study found that plastic and wood samples attracted different types of bacteria. “Opportunistic” bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa and aeromonas, were more abundant on plastic surfaces. These bacteria pose a significant risk, particularly to individuals with compromised immune systems. Additionally, the researchers discovered a higher concentration of antibiotic resistance genes on “weathered plastic,” which simulated the breakdown of plastic in a natural environment.
Plastic pollution in rivers and its role in the transport of pathogens cannot be ignored. Recent reports of raw sewage being pumped into UK waterways and the underreporting of pollution events have sparked public outrage. It is essential for water companies and regulatory bodies to take immediate action to address these issues and ensure the safety of our water resources.
Rivers serve as the main gateway for plastic to enter the world’s oceans. Each year, anywhere between 3.5 thousand metric tons to 2.41 million metric tons of plastic debris find their way from rivers to the sea. This alarming statistic underscores the urgent need for comprehensive solutions to tackle the issue of plastic pollution at its source. Only through collaborative efforts can we mitigate the environmental and health risks associated with plastic litter in rivers.
The study highlights the hidden dangers of plastic litter in rivers. Not only does it provide a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens, but it also contributes to the global issue of antibiotic resistance. Immediate action is required to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our rivers, including stricter regulation of wastewater treatment plants and innovative solutions to prevent the flow of plastic into our oceans. By addressing these issues, we can protect both our environment and our health for future generations.