'Air pollution to boost antibiotic-resistance deaths to 840k by 2050'

Antibiotic resistance from air pollution was already linked to an estimated 480,000 premature deaths in 2018. 

 Heavy industry air pollution (illustartion) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Heavy industry air pollution (illustartion)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

By the year 2050, approximately 840,000 individuals might succumb to antibiotic resistance linked to air pollution if prevailing air pollution policies remain unaltered, a new study published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal suggests.

According to the study, antibiotic resistance from air pollution was already linked to an estimated 480,000 premature deaths in 2018. 

Antibiotic resistance, in general, poses an escalating global health threat. The year 2019 witnessed a worldwide toll of 1.27 million deaths attributed to this issue. Projections from the scientific community indicate that by 2050, antimicrobial resistance (which includes antibiotic resistance) might be accountable for a staggering 10 million fatalities annually, surpassing even the mortality linked to cancer.

Antibiotics give rise to resilient bacteria

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. However, the excessive and inappropriate utilization of antibiotics has given rise to bacteria equipped with potent genes that render them resilient against these medications. Consequently, treating individuals infected by such antibiotic-resistant bacteria becomes significantly more challenging.

Meanwhile, air pollution is already correlated with various health concerns, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, compromised lung function, and increased susceptibility to depression, among various other illnesses.

 Antibiotic capsule (illustartive) (credit: INGIMAGE)
Antibiotic capsule (illustartive) (credit: INGIMAGE)

In this first-of-its-kind study, researchers from Zhejiang University in China and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom analyzed the findings of 12 previous research studies conducted across 116 countries between 2000 and 2018 that looked at patterns of the airborne spread of antibiotic resistance. The data was sourced from ResistanceMap, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Surveillance Atlas, and PLISA Health Information Platform for the Americas.

This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, Zhejiang University Global Partnership Fund, and China Postdoctoral Science Foundation.

Connection found between air pollution, risk of antibiotic resistance

The analysis revealed a probable connection between heightened air pollution and an elevated risk of antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, this study indicated that the correlation between these two factors had become more pronounced over time.

The study looked specifically at air pollution in the form of PM2.5 - particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers, about 30% of the size of a strand of human hair. The study found that for every 1% rise in the concentration of PM2.5, there was up to a 1.9% rise in antibiotic resistance depending on the pathogen.

The highest levels of antibiotic resistance were seen in North Africa and West Asia, areas with the most severe levels of PM2.5 pollution. Because of their sizeable populations, China and India are believed to be the nations where increases in PM2.5 levels would most significantly influence the premature death toll resulting from antibiotic resistance.

Europe and North America, which had lower average levels of PM2.5 pollution, also had lower resistance levels. 

“Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health,” said lead author Prof. Hong Chen of Zhejiang University in a statement.

"Antibiotic resistance and air pollution are each in their own right among the greatest threats to global health"

Prof. Hong Chen, Zhejiang University

“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 two-fold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combatting the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”