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Air Pollution In Cities Contain Drug-Resistant Bacteria, Increases Health Risks, Study Finds

Update Date: Nov 29, 2016 10:10 AM EST

Polluted city air may be riskier to health than previously believed. According to the findings of a new study, air pollution in cities contains drug-resistant bacteria, which cannot be treated by antibiotics. This increases health risks for people living in these cities.

Scientists say that these bacteria are making some virus untreatable, though the extent of damage is not clear yet. For the study, researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden analyzed 864 samples of DNA taken from humans, animals, and environments worldwide. The researchers looked for genes linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The samples collected from Chinese capital Beijing were found to have a high level of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs). Beijing is known to be among the cities with the highest level of air pollution.

"We studied only a small number of air samples, so to generalize, we need to examine the air from more places. But the air samples we did analyze showed a wide mix of different resistance genes," Joakim Larsson, a professor at Sahlgrenska Academy and director of the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research at the University of Gothenburg said in a press release.

The discovery of a series of genes that provide resistance to carbapenems was one of the most concerning finds of this study. Carbapenems is used as last-resort antibiotics for infections caused by difficult-to-treat bacteria.

Researchers are yet to determine whether these antibiotic-resistant bacteria were actually live in Beijing air. If so, it could pose as a serious threat. Larsson pointed out that there's a high possibility of the air having both live and dead bacteria

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report, confirming that 92% of the world's population now lives in areas where air quality levels exceed WHO limits. According to the organization, 25 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 is the maximum healthy exposure.

"The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it," said Dr Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director General at WHO.

Bustreo also pointed out that women, children and older adults are most vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution. To prevent this from taking a toll on their health, it is essential for this section of population to "breathe clean air from their first breath to their last."

The findings of the current study are published in Microbiome. The research was funded by the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance (JPI-AMR). The Swedish Research Council also provided the Gothenburg group's financing.

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