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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year at least two million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States, and that at least 23,000 of them die from these infections.

Antibiotics are designed to kill or stop the growth of disease-causing germs or microbes. So-called “superbugs” have adapted to resist the effects of antibiotics. The CDC states on its website that “[a]ntibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” The CDC also warns that “when animals are given antibiotics for growth promotion or increased feed efficiency, bacteria are exposed to low doses of these drugs over a long period of time.”

But now, according to a recent study, concerns are also being raised about the use of herbicides in our crops and in our local gardens. Researchers report that some herbicides may reduce the ability of antibiotics to control certain types of bacteria.

Researchers Find Herbicides Increase Bacterial Resistance

The study was published in a recent issue of Microbiology. Researchers tested a number of different antibiotics—including tetracycline, ciprofloxacin, and ampicillin—against both E. Coli and Salmonella enterica. They tested them alone, and after exposing the bacteria to three different herbicides: dicamba, 2,4-D, and glyphosate (the main herbicide in Roundup).

According to the results, “bacteria exposed to the ingredients of herbicides respond differently to clinically relevant antibiotics.” These findings demonstrate that “bacteria can be exposed to herbicides and antibiotics in environments as diverse as the human body, farms and in urban environments such as the lawns and gardens surrounding hospitals and homes.”

In most cases, exposure to herbicide decreased the antibiotic’s effectiveness. The researchers noted that policy makers and other researchers should look more closely at these types of outcomes when trying to fight antibiotic resistance. “The countries that are growing GM [genetically modified] crops at scale may wish to include these unanticipated effects on microbes in their evaluations,” said study author Jack Heinemann.

Other Ingredients in Formulations May Also Increase Resistance

The amount of herbicide used in the study was higher than what would usually be found as residue on food, but lower than the standards for commercially available herbicides. People exposed to herbicide drift and urban dwellers using herbicides in their own gardens could be exposed to a similar amount.

This study also found that the other so-called “inert” ingredients in the herbicides (surfactants) could cause antibiotic resistance. The surfactants studied are used not only in herbicides, but as emulsifiers in some foods and medicines.

A recent report indicated that by 2050, 10 million people will die each year from infections that were previously treatable by current antibiotics.

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