Antibiotics can save lives and, when used correctly, are some of the most effective medical “weapons” against bacterial infections in humans and animals. However, over the past few years, experts have observed the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that no longer respond to first-line antibiotics.
Antibiotic-resistance is the result of random genetic mutations in individual microorganisms. When these mutated microorganisms come into contact with antibiotics – for example, when antibiotics make their way into the environment – they are more likely to survive than other, non-resistant microorganisms. While these non-resistant organisms are killed off, the resistant organisms multiply, creating a gateway for a new antibiotic-resistant population.
The primary way for human pharmaceuticals to enter the environment is through waste water because only a portion of the antibiotics that are given to patients are absorbed, while the other part is eliminated through waste. Because these substances pass through standard sewage treatment plants, they are then discharged from treatment plants into bodies of water. Residues from veterinary medicines primarily find their way into dung and manure, and from there into the soil. Microorganisms are able to swap genetic material with one another or absorb it from their surroundings, which means that antibiotic resistance can spread quickly and also be transferred from harmless bacteria to harmful pathogens.
“Every time antibiotics are used, this allows for the spread of organisms that are resistant to these antibiotics,” points out Dr Hans-Christian Schaefer, DBU expert for biotechnology. According to the Federal Ministry of the Environment, 666 tonnes of antibiotics were dispensed in Germany in 2016. According to findings by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, 733 tonnes of antibiotics were dispensed to veterinarians in Germany in 2017. The use on animals of so-called reserve antibiotics – antibiotics that reserved for treating serious infections in humans in cases in which standard antibiotics are ineffective due to resistance – is considered to be especially critical.
With this in mind, the DBU has been committed to promoting sustainable pharmaceutical practices since 2012, and advocates for doctors to stop prescribing antibiotics unnecessarily, for improving hygiene measures, for the development of environmentally friendly medications, and for stronger environmental monitoring and greater research into active ingredients. “We need practical approaches that keep humans and animals healthy on the one hand, while reducing the negative impacts on the environment on the other,” says DBU General Secretary Alexander Bonde in summation. Examples of projects funded by the DBU include synthesizing readily biodegradable ciprofloxacin derivatives from the fluoroquinolone family of antibiotics, sustainable production of semi-synthetic cephalosporin antibiotics, and replacing antibiotics with lactobacilli and bacteriophages (bacterial viruses). Other DBU projects involve researching the environmental behaviour of sulphonamides, which are used as broad-spectrum antibiotics, and researching how the use of manure in biogas plants might impact antibiotic residues that may be contained therein.
You can find further examples of DBU-funded “Sustainable Pharmaceutical Practices” projects at: https://www.dbu.de/index.php?menuecms=2687.
You can download the DBU pamphlet “Pharmaceutical Residues in the Environment” (German: "Arzneimittelrückstände in der Umwelt”) at: https://www.dbu.de/643publikation1328.html