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Scientists in Britain have discovered that household products such as shampoos, detergents, and disinfectants may contribute to an increase in antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in the environment. These products are are washed into the water supply from homes and factories, eventually ending up in rivers and groundwater. Bacteria resistant to the compounds found in household products survive and multiply, and may spread to humans through contact with contaminated soil and water. Additionally, sewage sludge containing these compounds is spread on farms, potentially causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria to enter the food chain.

The study examined quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), which are found in many household cleaning products. Bacteria are killed by QACs in high concentrations, but in wastewater these compounds are diluted, allowing bacteria to survive and develop resistance. The section of bacterial DNA that controls resistance to QACs also contains genes that control antibiotic resistance. The scientists examined soils in Britain contaminated by QACs and sewage sludge, and found a high concentration of bacteria containing antibiotic-resistant genes.

According to Robin McKie, science editor at The Observer:

The study is important because it suggests that the problem of drug resistance is not merely the result of over-prescription of antibiotics or poor hygiene standards in hospitals. However, the team stressed the emergence of the most deadly superbugs – such as MRSA that has caused thousands of deaths in hospitals – is not linked to the use of disinfectants.

You can read McKie’s full article here.

The findings of the study are significant, indicating that the spread of antibiotic resistance is not confined within the walls of a hospital or pharmacy. Resistance is linked to our daily activities and our surrounding environment – our water, our soil, our farmland, and our food. Yet it is important to note that this study did not examine the relationship between antibiotic-resistance bacteria in the soil and antibiotic-resistant infections in humans or animals. While more research should be conducted to determine the effect of resistant bacteria in soil on human health, the majority of effort should still be focused on the primary contributors to antibiotic-resistant infections – antibiotic use and hospital practices.

1 Comment
do we worry about this?

Have these QAC's been around for a while or are they a recent addition to cleaning products? I ask because we have been using cleaning products since the 1950s, and we have yet to see any serious cleaning related super bugs. I realize that no one is asking us to completely change our cleaning product habits, but I'm curious if it has the potential to seriously harm society in the future the way antibiotics do.

--Josh