Written by: Captain Skellett // May 14th, 2009 // Science at Home

“Ugh, I don’t feel well, I think I have the flu, I’ve been sneezing all day,” Nick said thickly through a blocked nose, Nick being the erstwhile brother of my boyfriend.
“I doubt you have the flu,” said I, as I have to countless others over the years. “You wouldn’t be able to get out of bed, and you’d have aches everywhere if you had the flu. You probably just have a bad cold.”
“Nah, I have the flu. Give me some antibiotics, where are the antibiotics in this house?”
“But even if you DO have the flu, which you don’t, it’s caused by a virus so antibiotics won’t do anything. And why would the house have antibiotics lying around for casual consumption anyway?”
Nick did not find my helpfulness helpful, and proceeded to gut the house looking for antibiotics, which thankfully he never found (because there WEREN’T ANY).

Now, you know my thoughts already about antibacterials in handsoap and stuff, and how the shit is unnecessarily everywhere in our society and overprescribed to boot, but today Science Daily posted this article about superbugs (which I always picture with the undies on the outside) in wastewater treatment plants, so it’s time to talk about it again.


Part of the process of wastewater treatment is using bacteria to help breakdown biological matter. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to do it. So it makes sense to make that section of the treatment process pretty bacteria-friendly – warm, wet, and slow moving. Unfortunately less than cuddly bacteria like to procreate in the same conditions (hell, who wouldn’t?), making treatment plants like a giant petri dish for all sorts of bacteria.

So far, so good. It’s not a big deal, because most of the bacteria get taken out of the water afterwards. However this recent study has found that of those bacteria that DO remain in the water, a lot of them are multi-resistant, which is bad news.

Why does this happen? Well, partly it’s because the bacteria are so close together – close enough that the rare forms of DNA sharing can occur (like bacteria having sex instead of just splitting apart), which can spread plasmids of DNA that encode for antibiotic resistance. Further to THAT, the water has trace elements of antibacterials in it (because, as I’ve said, antibacs are freaking everywhere and of course they’re going to get into the water), so the environment is naturally selecting for resistant bacteria.

They’re still looking into the effect that this actually has on public health, but here in Australia they’re already talking about using treated water as a possible source for tap water, and if things like this are happening then it’s a big concern! As if drinking treated crap wasn’t bad enough!

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


6 Responses to “Superbugs”

  1. psi*psi says:

    sewage treatment plant effluent is cleaner than you’d think…after analyzing both for a year, i think i’d drink it instead of river water–but only if my life depended on it.

    (the influent, by contrast, made me want to cry some days. it became an ingrained habit after a few weeks on the job: read label, hold breath, open sample.)

    Captain Skellett Reply:

    Thanks for that psi*psi, interesting stuff. I think I’d rather go the river water myself, but when you think about it that’s probably full of unprocessed bird poo anyway. That influent sounds gross, I never liked opening up agar plated with e-coli cos of the smell, but I think you’re on a completely different level! Why do you have to analyse influent anyway, seriously, isn’t “clearly gross and needs to be treated the hell out of” good enough? The things we do for science…

  2. Ryno says:

    Thanks captain,

    My brother will love that, I know that I laughed at the same time as learning.
    The more references to Nichol-arse’s stupidity the better. I mean it’s like he has a tumble weed and not much else upstairs if you know what I mean

    Captain Skellett Reply:

    I know exactly what you mean. I can hear the old-timey western music playing already. Wahdawahda wah wah wah… Wahdawahda, wah wah waaaaaah…

  3. psi*psi says:

    It’s not the bird poo I’d worry about–it’s the raw sewage that people sometimes straight-pipe into the rivers from their homes. At least you know the effluent has been treated!

    No idea why they made us analyze influent. I think they just wanted to abuse us…thankfully, I’m no longer at that job.

    Captain Skellett Reply:

    Oh wow, I have totally never thought of that. People are gross, why would they do that!??? Man, I’m never drinking out of a river again (not that I have made much of a habit of it so far).

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