Rise in air pollution fuels antibiotic resistance, study suggests

By Grace van Deelen

Air pollution could be helping drive a rise in drug-resistant infections, which pose a dangerous threat to global public health, according to a new study.

The paper, published Monday in Lancet Planetary Health, concludes that particulate air pollution (PM2.5), which comes from burning fossil fuels for energy, industrial processes, and transportation, may be one of the largest contributors to the spread of antibiotic resistance worldwide. The link between the two phenomena has strengthened over time, according to the research.

“The benefits of controlling air pollution could be two-fold: not only will it reduce the harmful effects of poor air quality, it could also play a major role in combating the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said Hong Chen, the paper’s lead author and a professor of environmental science at Zhejiang University in China, in a statement.

The vast majority of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds health standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), meaning that they breath air containing high levels of pollutants, including PM2.5. Breathing polluted air raises the risk of premature death from heart disease, lung disease, stroke, and cancer affecting the lungs or airways. The Biden Administration has proposed multiple new policies to try to limit PM2.5, including tighter standards for soot pollution, new vehicle emissions standards, and improved reporting of air pollutants.