Dangerous Water?

image AP

When 17-year-old Ashley Mulroy read that scientists in Europe found prescription drug residues in rivers and streams, her scientific curiosity sparked a question:

"If they were being found over there then couldn't the same thing be happening in America and even in my own backyard, which in this case would be the Ohio River?"

For 10 weeks, she sampled water near her hometown of Moundsville, W.Va. and found traces of antibiotics everywhere — even in her high school's drinking fountains, reports CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras.

That discovery surprised her. But there was more.

"I started testing the bacteria in the same samples and I found that the high contamination was producing a more resistant bacteria," said Mulroy.

What turned up in this high school science project is part of the problem Dr. David Bell focuses on every day, as head of the Bacteria Resistance Program at the Centers For Disease Control.

"The bugs are becoming more and more resistant. We're almost at the point where we can't treat them," explained Dr. Bell.

Battling Antibiotic Resistance
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come up with a battle plan to combat antibiotic resistance.

Click here to read the CDC's action plan.
Bacteria that cause everything from ear infections to pneumonia are becoming immune to antibiotics. The primary cause is over-use and misuse by doctors and patients, but significant levels of antibiotics in water supplies could compound the problem.

"I think it is an environmental issue. The question is how much of a public health hazard is due to the antibiotics that get into the environment — we don't really know the answer," said Dr. Bell.

In Europe, scientists began studying drug contamination of water more than a decade ago. What's surprising is that very little research has been done here. Until now.

In the first full-scale study, the U.S. Geological Survey is testing 150 rivers and streams nationwide — with results expected later this year.

And in North Carolina, retired Environmental rotection Agency chemist Joe Bumgarner started sampling the water in his own community when he heard about the continuing use of antibiotics in agriculture.

"We have found antibiotics in wastewater lagoons on the farms. We have found antibiotics in the groundwater and in some cases, in well water," explained Bumgarner.

Bumgarner, now retired, is consulting for the EPA as he and other investigators try to find the answers to a newly emerging question:

"If there's not a problem then we can go on to something else. If there is, then we need to take action. I think there is at least potential, a very high potential for a problem," said Bumgarner.

Ashley Mulroy asked if antibiotics in one river might be cause for concern, and won a prestigious science prize for her research. Now the same question waits for an official government answer.



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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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