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Antibiotics as environmental pollutants: associated public health threats and residues in animal protein and biosolids

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This dissertation studies the larger issue of antibiotic resistance with respect to how antibiotics are being introduced into the environment, focusing on two major anthropogenic pathways: animal husbandry for human

This dissertation studies the larger issue of antibiotic resistance with respect to how antibiotics are being introduced into the environment, focusing on two major anthropogenic pathways: animal husbandry for human consumption, and the recycling of wastewater and municipal sludge generated during conventional biological sewage treatment.

For animal production on land (agriculture) antibiotics are often used for growth enhancement and increased feed efficiency. For animal production in water (aquaculture) antibiotics are often used as a prophylactic. I found that the same antibiotics are being used in both industries and that the same strains of human pathogens have also been isolated from both sources, expressing identical resistance mechanisms. In U.S. seafood, five out of 47 antibiotics screened for were detected at levels of 0.3 to 7.7 ng/g fresh weight. Although compliant with FDA regulations, the risk for resistance still exists, as even low antibiotic concentrations have been shown to exert selective pressure on bacteria.

Similarly low concentrations of antibiotics were found in U.S. biosolids at levels of 0.6 to 19.1 ng/g dry weight. Of the five antibiotics detected, two have never been reported before in biosolids. Three have never been reported before in U.S. biosolids. Using the raw numbers obtained from antibiotic screenings in biosolids, I assessed the impact of employing four different LC-MS/MS methods, concluding that analysts should experimentally determine the most appropriate quantitation method based on the analyte targeted, matrix investigated, and research goals pursued. Preferred quantitation approaches included the isotope dilution method with use of an analogous standard and, although time and resource demanding, the method of standard addition.

In conclusion, antibiotics introduced into the environment via agriculture, aquaculture, and wastewater recycling pose a combination of chemical and biological threats. Aside from exerting outright chemical toxicity to non-target organisms, antibiotic residues can promote the development of multi-drug resistance in human pathogens. Public health protection approaches to stem the risks posed by animal husbandry may include reserving drugs for exclusive, human use, decreasing their usage altogether, improving reporting efforts, reevaluating existing regulations on agricultural and aquacultural antibiotic usage, and improved risk assessment for biosolids application on land.

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  • 2015