Fabric softeners, disinfectants, shampoos and other household products are spreading drug-resistant bacteria around Britain, scientists have warned. Detergents used in factories and mills are also increasing the odds that some medicines will no longer be able to combat dangerous diseases.
The warning has been made by Birmingham and Warwick university scientists, who say disinfectants and other products washed into sewers and rivers are triggering the growth of drug-resistant microbes. Soil samples from many areas have been found to contain high levels of bacteria with antibiotic-resistant genes, the scientists have discovered - raising fears that these may have already been picked up by humans.
"Every year, the nation produces 1.5m tonnes of sewage sludge and most of that is spread on farmland," said Dr William Gaze of Warwick University. That sludge contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria whose growth is triggered by chemicals in detergents, he explained. "In addition, we pump 11bn litres of water from houses and factories into our rivers and estuaries every day, and these are also spreading resistance."
The study is important because it suggests that the problem of drug resistance is not merely the result of the over-prescription of antibiotics or poor hygiene standards in hospitals. However, the team stressed the emergence of the most deadly superbugs - such as MRSA that has caused thousands of deaths in hospitals - is not linked to the use of disinfectants.
"Our research shows drug resistance is not confined to hospitals, but is out in the community. It is spreading and all the time it is eroding our ability to control infections. It is extremely worrying," said Professor Liz Wellington, also of Warwick University.