Air pollution may be increasing antibiotic resistance, new research suggests

Aerial view of fog over London.
(Image credit: Andrew Holt / Getty Images)

Worsening air pollution could be fueling the evolution of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a paper published in The Lancet Planetary Health. Researchers found "significant correlations" between antibiotic resistance and the concentration of air pollutants known as PM 2.5, The Washington Post reported.

The study looked at data from 116 countries from 2000 to 2018 and found that "correlations between PM 2.5 and antibiotic resistance are consistent across the world in most antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and that the correlations have strengthened over time." Scientists estimated that antibiotic resistance stemming from air pollution caused around 480,000 premature deaths in 2018, an amount they posit will increase by over 50% by 2050.

PM 2.5 pollution is incredibly small, approximately "1/20th of a width of a human hair," per CNN. Because of its size, it "can travel past your body's usual defenses" and "can get stuck in your lungs or go into your bloodstream." The new research suggests that pollution has larger health implications than previously thought. "Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health," said Hong Chen, co-author of the study. "Until now, we didn't have a clear picture of the possible links between the two, but this work suggests the benefits of controlling air pollution could be twofold."

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However, more research needs to be done because correlation does not equal causation. "It's still possible that there are confounding factors at work, and that these are involved in the causation of a country's level of antibiotic resistance," Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, told Politico. The reason for the correlation is also not explained in the study.

Air pollution is expected to get worse over time due to climate change. "The findings have substantial policy and environmental implications by presenting a new pathway to combat clinical antibiotic resistance by controlling environmental pollution," the study's authors wrote.

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Devika Rao

Devika Rao is a staff writer for The Week. She graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Environment and Sustainability and a minor in Climate Change. Previously, she worked as a Policy and Advocacy associate in the nonprofit space advocating for environmental action from the business perspective. She is passionate about the environment, books, and music.