Study finds widespread contamination of Irish water with superbugs resistant to treatment

Study Finds Widespread Contamination Of Irish Water With Superbugs Resistant To Treatment
There is widespread contamination of Irish waters with so-called superbugs “of clinical concern,” according to a new study on organisms resistant to treatment with antibiotics found in Ireland.
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Seán McCárthaigh

There is widespread contamination of Irish waters with so-called superbugs “of clinical concern,” according to a new study on organisms resistant to treatment with antibiotics found in Ireland.

The report, which was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, warned that people engaged in marine leisure activities in waters impacted by wastewater discharges are at an increased risk of illness associated with such superbugs.


Researchers said the detection of antimicrobial-resistant organisms in areas assessed as having good or excellent quality highlighted the limitations of the current EU bathing water quality rating system including using E.coli levels as a sole indicator of water quality.

It also found that the pollution from healthcare facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes is a larger potential contributor to the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) than farming activities.

The study, which provides the results of the AREST project on AMR and the environment, also found evidence of the most dangerous superbugs in the Republic including Carbapenemase-Producing Enterobacteriaceae, commonly known as CPE which was declared a public health emergency for a number of years by the HSE.

The authors of the reports said the findings about antimicrobial resistant bacteria (ARB) in Irish waters, particularly in relation to the detection of CPE was “concerning".


“These ARB present in surface waters have the potential to negatively impact human health, causing illness and loss of life, as well as increasing pressure on healthcare services,” the report stated.

It added: “The issue of ARB development is a mounting threat to human well-being and requires action in terms of research, practice and legislation.”

The study noted that in many cases of infection with superbugs like CPE that there are limited treatment available.

'Mcr genes'

It also detected for the first time the presence in Irish waters of organisms known as “mcr genes” which are resistant to last resort treatments like colistin.


However, it claimed the risk to humans could be lowered by measures including improved wastewater treatment or physical modifications of bathing sites.

Researchers from the University of Galway, UCD and Teagasc tested a large number of water and wastewater samples from four local authority areas – Galway city and county, Fingal in north Dublin and Cork county.

An analysis of the samples revealed the widespread presence of multi-drug resistant bacteria in waters throughout the four areas including rivers, lakes, estuaries and seawaters.

The study identified clusters in each area, predominantly in urban areas, which were regarded as potential “hotspots” with an increased risk of harbouring AMR organisms.


Researchers said their results showed that several ARB are introduced into Irish waters through the discharge of untreated wastewater.

AMR has been identified as one of the top 10 greatest threats to human health by the World Health Organisation.

It is estimated that 10 million deaths per year will be attributable to AMR by 2050 unless corrective action is taken.

AMR is also regarded as having major implications for animals, food production systems, the environment and the economy as well as increasing pressure on healthcare services.

However, the EPA report said the role of the environment in the persistence and transmission of AMR has not received adequate attention to date.

The study concluded there was a need for regular monitoring of Irish waters for the presence of AMR both to better understand their role in transmitting AMR as well as to inform policies designed to protect public health.

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