UPSC MAINS 2019 : World’s rivers loaded with antibiotics waste

World’s rivers loaded with antibiotics waste’

Topic: World’s rivers loaded with antibiotics waste’

Topic in Syllabus : General Studies Paper 3: Ecology & Environment



World’s rivers loaded with antibiotics waste’

Rivers worldwide are polluted with antibiotics that exceed environmental safety thresholds by up to 300 times, according to research.



Scientists found one or more common antibiotics in two-thirds of 711 samples taken from rivers in 72 countries, they told a meeting of environmental toxicologists in Helsinki.

  • The countries with the highest levels of antibiotic river pollution were Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria.
  • Within Europe, one site in Austria had the biggest concentrations anywhere on the continent.

Where do antibiotics in the environment come from?

  • When we use an antibiotic, typically between 30–90% of the active compound will get excreted and flushed down the loo. This means sewage plants are chock full of a city’s medicines. But humans are not the only source.
  • Globally, two-thirds of antibiotics produced are used on animals. They secrete them onto land and into slurry pits, which can run off into rivers, lakes or groundwater.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, fish farms also produce antibiotic waste. And finally there is waste from pharmaceutical factories, which can also pollute waterways.



Blanketing the environment results in conditions that encourage bacteria to evolve ways to protect themselves. Worse, these bacteria, most of which are strains harmless to humans, can then share this resistance mechanism with disease-causing microbes.

  • Scientists fear antibiotics in rivers cause bacteria to develop resistancemeaning they can no longer be used in medicines for humans.
  • The UN estimates that the rise in antibiotic resistancecould kill 10 million people by 2050.
  • A lot of the resistance genes we see in human pathogens originated from environmental bacteria.
  • Antimicrobial resistancehappens when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.
  • Microorganisms that develop antimicrobial resistance are sometimes referred to as “superbugs”.
  • As a result, the medicines become ineffective and infections persist in the body, increasing the risk of spread to others.
  • New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability, and death.
  • Without effective antimicrobials for prevention and treatment of infections, medical procedures such as organ transplantation, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and major surgery (for example, caesarean sections or hip replacements) become very high risk.


How big a contribution is the environment making to the rise of resistant bacteria?

  • In dozens of locations, concentrations of the drugs used to fight off bacterial infection in people and livestock exceeded safety levels set by the AMR Industry Alliance, a grouping of more than 100 biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Ciprofloxacin, a frontline treatment for intestinal and urinary tract infections, surpassed the industry threshold at 51 of the sites tested.
  • At one location in Bangladesh, concentrations of another widely used antibiotic, metronidazole, were 300 times above the limit, the researchers said.
  • Discovered in the 1920s, antibiotics have saved tens of millions of lives from pneumonia, tuberculosis, meningitis and a host of deadly bacteria.
  • Overuse and misuse of the drugs are thought to be the main causes of antimicrobial resistance.
  • Concentrations of antibiotics in a river near manufacturing plants in India and China have been found to be higher than needed to treat a patient. For instance, the antibiotic ciprofloxacin was recordedat 31mg per litre in effluent entering a river in India, a million times greater than levels usually found in sewage outflows.
  • Modern sewage plants have levels of antibiotics in the nanograms or micrograms per litre, and may provide fertile conditions for resistance to emerge. And, as sludge from plants is often spread on agricultural land, it offers an easy route for people, domestic and wild animals to encounter drug-resistant bacteria


Way forward:

Antibiotics have saved thousands of lives ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. However, due to human negligence and big pharmaceutical companies’ mismanagement of their resources and waste, these drugs that save lives are coming back to bite us.

  •  One solution is to take a precautionary approach and minimise concentrations as best we can.
  • There have been positive developments. In April 2017, India announced it would regulate antibiotic discharges from drug makers within three years.
  • Some companies have also committed to voluntary restrictions. GlaxoSmithKline has promised to have suppliers comply with its standards too. Greater transparency will help.
  • Wastewater treatment plants can also be upgraded with new technology, such as ozone treatment, to more thoroughly clean the water.
  • The unresolved over-use of antibiotics by people has been in the spotlight, but the huge quantities needlessly applied in farming and aquaculture get less attention.
  • Better stewardship can slow the rate of emergence of new superbugs. Improved DNA detection will also help to monitor resistance genes in the environment and allow us to prioritise the steps needed to tackle the problem.
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the world is running out of antibiotics that still work, and has called on industry and governments to urgently develop a new generation of drugs.
  • Solving the problem is going to be a mammoth challenge and will need investment in infrastructure for waste and wastewater treatment, tighter regulation and the cleaning up of already contaminated sites.


Sample Question

 Is Antibiotic waste is a major threat to environment pollution?Justify.



World’s rivers loaded with antibiotics waste - infographs