Over the last century, we have become accustomed to living our lives without needing to fear death by bacterial infection. Antibiotics, starting with penicillin and sulfonamides, mopped up infections that that used to kill millions of people.
But as people came to use antibiotics too frequently, and farmers fed them to their animals to make them fatter, those antibiotics started accumulating in the environment. Bacteria that live inside or on on us started swapping antibiotic resistance genes with bacteria that were only visiting our bodies. As cities become more built up, and water levels start to rise due to global warming, sewage treatment plants find themselves releasing more untreated sewage into rivers. And thus, our rivers are starting to sport antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Perched atop a tall ridge overlooking the Hudson River, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is Columbia University’s world-reknowned geology and environmental sciences facility. Scientists Suzanne Young, Andrew Juhl, and Gregory O’Mullan have been studying the river and its bacteria. In this study, summarized here, several sites along the Hudson River were found to be contaminated with fecal bacteria. And 1/3 to 3/4 of potentially harmful bacteria sampled had resistance to commonly used antibiotics.
If you don’t like the idea of swimming in someone else’s fecal matter, consider this, too. Even treated, sewage still contains drugs processed through human urine. Heart medications, birth control pills - you name it. They all exist in the environment. In some lakes and rivers, concentrations of drugs are high enough to effect fish and wildlife.
So what should you do?
First of all, avoid swimming or fishing in contaminated areas.
Second, dispose of medications through special “take back” programs. You can find one near you through locators on web sites like this one.
Third, don’t contribute to the excessive use of antibiotics. Don’t take them unless you need them. Wash your hands and use other common sense measures to avoid bacteria. Think about what you eat, so that your food buying habits don’t also increase the mount of antibiotic use. For example, many dairies produce dairy products from cows not treated with antibiotics.