By Duncan Mboyah

The release into the environment of antimicrobial compounds in effluents from households, hospitals and pharmaceutical facilities, and in agricultural run-offs, combined with direct contact between natural bacterial communities and discharged resistant bacteria, is driving bacterial evolution and the emergence of more resistant strains.

The UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim says “the warning here is truly frightening since we could be spurring the development of ferocious superbugs through ignorance and carelessness,” He spoke while launching the Frontiers Report during the latest United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA).

He said that studies had initially linked the misuse of antibiotics in humans and agriculture over the last several decades to increasing resistance, but their role of the environment and pollution has received little attention.

“We need priority action right now, or else we run the risk of allowing resistance to occur through the back door, with potentially terrifying consequences,” he adds.

Globally about 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year because available antimicrobial drugs have become less effective at killing the resistant pathogens. And once consumed, most antibiotic drugs are excreted un-metabolized along with resistant bacteria the report says.

According to the report wastewater treatment facilities cannot remove all antibiotics and resistant bacteria, and in fact may be hotspots for antimicrobial resistance. There is evidence showing that multi-drug resistant bacteria are prevalent in marine waters and sediments close to aquaculture, industrial and municipal discharges.

Even more the report says that there is a serious risk that we do not understand enough about the long-term effects of nanomaterials to use them safely since the global nanomaterials market is expected to grow 20.7 per cent annually, and reach US$ 55 billion by 2022.

The report finds that the speed of industrial development is far out-stripping the pace of regulatory development.

It calls for research on nanomaterials since past lessons from exposure to hazardous materials – such as asbestos has taught people that “no evidence of harm” does not equal “evidence of no harm”.

The report blames overfishing, extractive activities, tourism, coastal development and pollution for damaging ocean habitats and reducing populations of marine species. “We have lost half of the world’s coral reefs and are consuming nearly one-third of our commercial fish stocks at unsustainable rates,” it adds.

It calls for governing the oceans in a sustainable way to enable Marine Protected Areas as a driver not a limit for the vital economic and social benefits that we derive from the global ocean.

The report says that chronic exposure to fine dust contributes to premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections and also causes economic losses.

Despite the known issues, human activity has caused dust emission to rise by 25-50 per cent since 1900. Land-use changes are responsible for 25 per cent of global dust emission.

“In reducing the threat, strategies that promote sustainable land and water management in landscapes including cropland, rangelands, deserts, and urban areas, integrated with measures addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation are required,” it says.

Sand and dust storm result from strong winds eroding sand, silt and clay particles from arid landscapes and impoverishing their soils.

They can travel thousands of kilometers across continents and oceans, entraining other pollutants on the way and depositing particles far from their origin.

The report also calls for the enactment of the right policies and regulations to encourage the development of off-grid solar in helping countries achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services and eliminating poverty.

It states that while significant progress has been made in recent years, an estimated 780 million people could remain off-grid in 2030, nearly one billion people worldwide live without electricity.

“Unless we deal with long-term environmental vulnerability and build resilience in communities, environmental displacement will become a new normal,” it says.

It reveals that the interwoven trends of climate change, population growth, rising consumption, and environmental degradation are likely to lead to the displacement and migration of even greater numbers of people in the future.