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Come on in, the Water’s … Full of Superbugs!
A new study finds antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Hudson River.

It’s a scorcher out there. According to NASA and NOAA, last month was one of the hottest months on record globally, and the 340th month in a row to hit higher-than-average temperatures. This week is especially bad as a “drunken” weather pattern rips across the Midwest and East Coast. All of this sticky heat means people are desperately seeking ways to cool off, but if you’re taking a dip in the Hudson River, as sweaty New Yorkers undoubtedly will do this weekend, you may be cooling down with some unsavory swimming buddies.

In certain spots between Westchester’s Tappan Zee Bridge and lower Manhattan, the study—published this week in the Journal of Water and Health—found antibiotic-resistant pathogens in the river. Even better, they think the microbes can be tracked back to untreated sewage. Now doesn’t that just make you want to get out the sunscreen and go all Wet Hot American Summer?

Humans often get infections after going swimming, however, and they are rarely serious enough to require antibiotics. But there could be health concerns down the line. As noted by the researchers from Columbia University, rivers can serve as incubators for bacteria. Kind of like the way some rookie criminals learn new tricks in prison, superbugs in rivers can easily pass their drug-resistant genes on to normal bacteria. The microbes found in the Hudson are resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, anitibiotics commonly used for ailments from ear infections to pneumonia.

Antibiotic-resistant MRSAMaryn McKenna, author of Superbug, says this isn’t the first time antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in U.S. rivers. (She wrote about the topic for Wired in 2011.) “This report looks interesting because the researchers found disease-causing organisms that were resistant,” McKenna told me in an email. “In the past, the findings have been of benign bacteria that happened to be carrying resistance DNA.” She says these new findings may mean more direct risk of causing disease in humans.

Of course, this is just another chapter in the story of antibiotic-resistance. The Infectious Diseases Society of America reports that 2 million Americans develop hospital-acquired infections a year. This results in 99,000 deaths, “the vast majority of which are due to antibacterial (antibiotic)-resistant pathogens.” Aside from untreated sewage, resistance has been linked to overuse of antibiotics in both people and livestock. In fact, the Natural Resource Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) reports that over 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. is used on food animals, most of whom aren’t even sick. Yum.

Sweating yet? Our summertime heroes used to be the ice cream man and the lifeguards at your neighborhood pool. But you’d do well to add water quality scientists to that list—because they’re the ones who are really looking out for you.

Image: NIAID

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OnEarth news blogger Jason Bittel contributes to Slate and serves up science for picky eaters on his website, Bittel Me This. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two tiny wolves. (Note: wolves may be Pomeranians.) MORE STORIES ➔
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With so much indiscriminate use of antibiotics, pesticides and similar chemicals, it isn't surprising at all. The resistance of new parasites to existing medicines is a scary phenomena and in some ways, was quite avoidable