Antibiotics in the environment

Ups J Med Sci. 2014 May;119(2):108-12. doi: 10.3109/03009734.2014.896438. Epub 2014 Mar 19.


Molecules with antibiotic properties, produced by various microbes, have been around long before mankind recognized their usefulness in preventing and treating bacterial infections. Bacteria have therefore been exposed to selection pressures from antibiotics for very long times, however, generally only on a micro-scale within the immediate vicinity of the antibiotic-producing organisms. In the twentieth century we began mass-producing antibiotics, mainly synthetic derivatives of naturally produced antibiotic molecules, but also a few entirely synthetic compounds. As a consequence, entire bacterial communities became exposed to unprecedented antibiotic selection pressures, which in turn led to the rapid resistance development we are facing today among many pathogens. We are, rightly, concerned about the direct selection pressures of antibiotics on the microbial communities that reside in or on our bodies. However, other environments, outside of our bodies, may also be exposed to antibiotics through different routes, most often unintentionally. There are concerns that increased selection pressures from antibiotics in the environment can contribute to the recruitment of resistance factors from the environmental resistome to human pathogens. This paper attempts to 1) provide a brief overview of environmental exposure routes of antibiotics, 2) provide some thoughts about our current knowledge of the associated risks for humans as well as ecosystems, and 3) indicate management options to reduce risks.

Keywords: Antibiotic resistance; bacteria; environment; pollution; risk assessment; waste-water.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Humans


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Environmental Pollutants