Majority Of Global Rivers Analyzed In Recent Study Had Antibiotics In Them

A recent study of rivers across 72 countries found that waterways are often contaminated with antibiotics, including here in the Mountain West.

John Wilkinson, a researcher at the University of York in the UK, coordinated the study and presented it for the first time this week at an environmental toxicology conference in Helsinki. He says two-thirds of the 165 rivers they sampled had antibiotics flowing in them.

“The concentrations of these antibiotics were far above levels that we might suspect,” Wilkinson said.

Places in Africa and Asia where sewage is unregulated were the worst. But Wilkinson said contamination can also escape from regulated sewage treatment plants here in North America and in Europe. Another culprit is runoff from factory farms where antibiotics are used.

An electronics waste site in Accra, Ghana
Credit Global Monitoring of Pharmaceuticals Project
An electronics waste site in Accra, Ghana

Wilkinson said they found antibiotics in several Colorado rivers.  

They weren’t high levels, but “small concentrations of the antibiotics are more of a contributing factor than we originally thought in perpetuating this problem,” Wilkinson said.

He’s referring to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance, a crisis the United Nations recently warned could cause as many as 10 million deaths a year by 2050.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.