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Air pollution can change efficacy of antibiotics, says study

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI | AFP | Getty Images

A new study from researchers in England has shown that bacteria which cause respiratory infections in humans are directly impacted by air pollution, altering the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment and increasing the potential for infection.

Researchers from the University of Leicester looked at the impact air pollution has on the bacteria living inside us. A specific focus was placed on the respiratory tract, comprising of the nose, throat and lungs.

The research showed that black carbon – produced from the burning of fossil fuels – changed the way that bacteria grow and form communities.

This, the university said in a news release, could change how these bacteria survive on the lining of our respiratory tracts as well as change their ability to hide from and fight our immune systems.

"This work increases our understanding of how air pollution affects human health," Julie Morrissey, from the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics, said.

"It shows that the bacteria which cause respiratory infections are affected by air pollution, possibly increasing the risk of infection and the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment of these illnesses."

The team's research homed in on two pathogens: Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

Among other things, black carbon was found to increase the resistance of "communities" of Streptococcus pneumoniae to penicillin, and that it enabled it to move from the nose to the lower respiratory tract.

Air pollution is becoming an increasingly serious problem globally. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 7 million people died in 2012 as a result of exposure to it.

"The lead investigators have brought together their expertise in genetics, microbiology and air pollution chemistry to provide truly multidisciplinary ground breaking insights," Paul Monks, head of the College of Science and Engineering at Leicester, said.

"This research has significant potential to initiate a global research effort to understand a hitherto unknown effect of air pollution and provide significant additional impetus to the control of pollution," Monks added.