EU member states need to step up the fight against antibiotics in the environment

German Environment Agency presents seven priority areas for action

Das Bild zeigt den Mund einer Frau. Mit ihrer rechten Hand führt sie eine Tablette an ihren Mund. Click to enlarge
Antibiotics find their way into the environment in many ways.
Source: Benicce /

The German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt - UBA) advises EU member states to better address the risks posed by antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the environment. “The spread of AMR is an increasing worldwide problem. The EU’s ‘One Health Action Plan on AMR’ addresses the issue mainly in the area of human and veterinary medicine. It does not sufficiently address antibiotics in the environment. Soil or water play an important role as breeding grounds, however. We need to properly identify, manage and minimize these risks” said Jutta Klasen, head of the UBA department on “Chemical Safety”. A new scientific opinion paper by UBA identifies seven priority areas for action – amongst them are: A complete ban on the use of untreated sewage sludge as a fertilizer, the introduction of better waste water treatment facilities in larger cities, which are often the hotspots for the discharge of antibiotic resistances, and a broad and systematic monitoring of AMR in the environment.

Antibiotics are highly active substances which impede and/or kill the growth of bacteria. Once excreted by humans and animals, antibiotics may find their way into the environment through waste water and animal manure. Antibiotics can also enter the groundwater from rivers, lakes and streams or via the soil. Antibiotics have been found in all environmental compartments and can harm other organisms in the water ecosystem.

The input paths of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are generally identical to those for antibiotics. In particular, antibiotic-resistant bacteria occur in the environment where water or soil are contaminated. The proliferation of antibiotics via slurry and dung used as commercial manure is most problematic, as antibiotic-resistant germs spread into the environment. There resistant germs can multiply and/or pass their resistance genes on to other pathogens which are dangerous to human beings. The more often this happens, the more resistant germs can grow and prevail. As a consequence classic antibiotic treatments for common bacterial diseases are no longer effective. Studies have shown, that even limited concentra-tions of antibiotic residues are sufficient for the proliferation of AMR.

UBA recommends, that these seven priority areas for action are addressed by the EU and the member states:

  1. Prevention: Use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine should consequently be limited to the medically necessary level.
  2. Communication: Doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians and farmers must be informed and trained on the topic of antibiotics in the environment and in particular the correct disposal of antibiotic residues.
  3. Authorization of antibiotics: Develop and implement assessment methods and criteria for antibiotics and antibiotic resistances.
  4. Direct and indirect discharge of waste water treatment plants (municipal and industrial): Identify hotspots for the discharge of antibiotics and antibiotic resistances. Improve the technology at waste water treatment plants. Compile the production locations and examine the emissions from production facilities.
  5. Surface waters/bathing waters/groundwater: Develop monitoring guidelines and assessment concepts for the monitoring of antibiotic resistance in surface and bathing waters. Reduce the input of antibiotic resistances into surface and bathing waters, e.g. through the widening of riparian strips and the designation of water protection zones.
  6. Fertilisers used in agriculture: Apply a needs-based fertilisation. Prohibit the application of untreated sewage sludge onto soil and use sewage sludge for the recovery of phosphorous.
  7. Soil: Monitor the dissemination of antibiotic residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria at selected arable farmland locations. Define precautionary limit values for antibiotics, zinc and copper in the soil.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau

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