It is frightening to know that water in almost all major water bodies in India including rivers, fresh water lakes and backwaters remain polluted with high level of chemical substances including antibiotics. It is also to be noted that such residues are found in food – grains, vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat, milk and even the water supplied or bottled consumed by us.
India is the world's largest consumer of antibiotics. The country is also infamous for irresponsible way of antibiotic usage and disposal as well as large scale environmental pollution caused by antibiotics. In 2010, when a study identified an enzyme that rendered bacteria resistant to broad spectrum antibiotics as ‘New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1’, the Indian government described the report as “malicious propaganda”.
But in reality, the country’s antibiotic usage pattern is a bit horrifying. It is not just human beings alone, who swallow antibiotic unrestrictedly. The agriculture and veterinary sectors also uses unreasonably higher dosages of antibiotics.
The antibiotics, which are once known to be magic remedy, is now cautions us for its adverse side effects, especially when taken for long-term regimens. These adverse effects include kidney damage, tendinitis, and other forms of organ damage.
Many antibiotics work by actually disrupting normal bacterial functions, such as growth or their forms of protection. Some of the antibiotics can create reactive oxygen species (ROS) throughout the body. The ROS is lethal to healthy cells and can potentially harm bacterial cells.
The effluents from the factories where antibiotic medicines are made are another horrifying factor. Remember, India is one of the biggest producers of antibiotics! Pharmaceutical industry is one of the major contributors to the chemical contamination of water bodies mainly river and ground water storages.
The developing countries had initiated relocation of pharmaceutical production to developing countries like India countries due to the advantages of low cost production and lighter environmental adherence requirements available in the developing world. But the low-cost manufacturing offered by India has severely harmed the water bodies of the country.
The grave threats to the environment passed by pharmaceutical companies are exemplified by the fate of Patencheru in Andhara Pradesh. Several major Indian pharmaceutical companies are operational for the last four decades in the industrial estate at Patencheru. Of late the area has been identified for serious violation of environmental regulations. Environmental activists allege that many among the companies are simply discharging wastewater into the water bodies without any or in sufficient treatment. Such untreated industrial effluents from the estate pumped into the Nakkavagu drain have poisoned the groundwater, affecting not just hundreds of acres of agricultural lands but also the drinking waters of about 15 hamlets. There are reports that some of the companies were producing ingredients for which they do not have permission. They were using more water than the permitted limit, which casue ground water depletion in the area.
One of the STPs at Amberpet, which claims to be treating the effluent water from the estate has become infamous for polluting the Musi river, which was the lifeline of the region. The STP, reportedly, ill-equipped to treat the pharmaceutical effluents with different chemical compositions discharge the untreated effluents into the river. As a result, water bodies in the nearby villages have become polluted. The pollution has also rendered farmlands in the villages unusable. Several studies show that diseases like cancer, infertility, hormonal imbalance and birth defects are common in the area.
Though the effluent treatment plants are in place handling of effluents, treatment, monitoring and overall efficacy of the plants remain under suspicion. This matter is now pointing towards more effective, traceable options for the highly complex requirement of industrial effluent treatment in India.
Making water safe in the era of antibiotics
The complex task of removing / tackling chemical contamination in currently the centre to the water conservation initiatives including industrial effluent treatment, river rejuvenation plans, water conservation plans at rural level and urban water management plans. Take fact is endorsed by the governments, research organisations and consumers alike.
Sewage management and industrial discharge management are the first two objectives of the Namame Gange project by the government of India aimed rejuvenating The river Ganga, which has 2,525 kilometers in length and provides water to 40 per cent of India’s population is prone to extensive chemical pollution which has been rampantly happening for the last six decades.
The instance of current state of antibiotic emission exemplifies the transparency and awareness needs vis a vis chemical pollution of water. It is a fact that every antibiotic pill eventually ends up in the environment. Various studies show that around 95% of the antibiotics are excreted unaltered. Nearly 54% of people throw medicines into trash. The water treatment plants, which are commonly used, are ill-equipped to handle pharmaceuticals effluents. Extensive surveys across the world have reported alarmingly high levels of antibiotic concentration in water, wastewater treatment plants (WWTP), river, streams, lakes, seawater, groundwater, soil, plants and aquatic animals. The fact that antibiotics have become an inevitable part of the health sector, agriculture, aquaculture and livestock farming summons for smart option for waste water treatment. Such option should be technically and economically feasible and adaptable to tackle the issues of antibiotic effluents in industrial, commercial and domestic sectors.
Water Needs More Protection
Fortunately, the government of India has stared implementing comprehensive strategy to tackle the menace of antibiotics and addressing environment pollution also forms a part of it. Last year, India’s health ministry has announced the country’s first plan to curb antimicrobial resistance, including measures to prevent misuse of antibiotics by doctors, consumers, and healthcare institutions. The National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (2017-21) launched by the Centre envisions coordinated tasks through various agencies involving health, education, environment, and livestock to change prescription practices and consumer behaviour vis a vis the usage of antibiotics.
India has also led the way so far with its idea of a ‘Red Line Campaign’ for antibiotics packaging, launched earlier this year and should be considered as a starting point. The campaign, launched in February this year, began marking prescription-only antibiotics with a red line to curb their irrational use and create awareness on the dangers of taking antibiotics without being prescribed.
However, protecting water bodies, where ultimately the antibiotic effluents end up is still to from a major component about controlling the usage of antibiotics. Rather such efforts shall target in managing the cradle-to-grave journey of antibiotics, through a holistic approach.
(The write up based on media reports and research papers about antibiotic misuse, effluent discharge and contamination, appeared online)