Heavy metals are known environmental contaminants that can be leached through a variety of human activities and interfere with access to safe drinking water and housing. Major news stories like those from Flint, MI, show us the prevalence of lead contaminated water within the United States and the disastrous health consequences that may result from long term exposure. Scientists have now discovered another major health consequence resulting from heavy metal contamination: an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, otherwise known as “superbugs”, are specific strains of bacteria that do not respond to typical antibiotic treatment. Superbugs, like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), were responsible for nearly 1.3 million deaths in 2019 and are a growing issue for medical and health scientists. Most superbugs developed through overuse of antibiotic medications, resulting in fast-breeding bacteria selecting for genetic traits that were immune to the antibiotic effects. Normally, heavy metals are toxic to bacteria species, but some have evolved to survive by ejecting metal ions, which also leads to the ejection of antibiotic drugs. Newly published research from the University of Wisconsin is now uncovering a trend between exposure to heavy metals and increased rates of antibiotic resistant bacteria within the human body.

Using samples from nearly 700 participants in the 2016 – 2017 Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, head researcher Shoshannah Eggers and her team found that elevated urine lead levels were predictive of higher antibiotic resistant bacteria counts, after accounting for additional resistance factors. Researchers also found that lead levels as well as levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria were higher in both urban residents and minority populations, with nonwhite urban residents being 76% more likely to test positive for the presence of a superbug than white urban residents.

The pathways and mechanisms that lead to antibiotic resistance are still under investigation, but the epidemiologic links have sparked concern for both public health officials and environmental justice advocates. Minimizing exposure to lead and other heavy metals is not only important in the fight against chronic health effects, but will also slow the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria species.

Shoshannah Eggers is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She completed her PhD in Population Health Science with a concentration in Epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Her research focuses on environmental epidemiology and impacts to the humane microbiome.

Managing Correspondent: Samantha Tracy
Press Article: “Living with Lead Creates Antibiotic-Resistant ‘Superbugs’”
Journal Article: “Urinary lead level and colonization by antibiotic resistant bacteria: Evidence from a population-based study
Photo Credit: Pixabay

One thought on “Heavy Metal Exposure Creates Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

  1. I have a very unique and Bad situation. I have been dealing with many issues for years… all seemed vague and unrelated to doctors but I have come to find out that is only because the doctors were not reading the past medical notes! Recently however I have been working with Dr. Akiba Green Lake Norman Integrated Health, who has run several tests. TOXIC & ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS – HAIR, test that found High Toxic levels of Heavy Metals of Aluminum, zinc, Manganese, Vanadium, Silver, Tin, Calcium, Magnesium, Nickel, Strontium, Cobalt, Uranium, and Copper. DIAGNOSTIC SOLUTIONS – STOOL, which showed high levels of bacteria – Enterohemorrhagic E. coli, Enterobacter spp, Roseburia spp, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Enterococcus faecalis, enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus spp, Klebsiella spp, Enterobacter spp, and URINE TEST showed Yellow Fever, H5N1, Strep Nigrificiens, Staph Aureus MW2, E-Coli, Babes Micro, Enterococcus Faecalis, Enterococcus Facial, and then URINE & BLOOD TESTS showed – CMV and EBV. The kicker is that I have tested positive for a high level of XYLENES EXPOSURE, and I have NO IDEA how… So in my researching I came across this article and now wonder if it’s not the toxic metals that have wreck havoc on my body allowing these bacteria & viruses to accumulate all these years. So I am intrigued by this article, as it makes sense to me and I wonder if possibly there is a genetic disease/mutation… something that couldn’t also factor into this type of scenario. Where the body can’t rid itself of the heavy metals fast enough and allows them to build up in the body and then therefore the bacteria/viruses are allowed to function and build up also. But, I also wonder where do these metals come from if “water” is not the source.
    My situation is beyond ridiculous and I am really at a loss of where to go from here.
    I know this sounds unreal… believe me…. BUT… I CAN BACK UP EVERYTHING THAT I HAVE MENTIONS IN THIS EMAIL w/ all the medical testing, so I am NOT making this up. I enjoyed reading your article and it has created new questions for me.

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