USF study: Pinellas County's 2014 sewage spill contained dangerous bacteria
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the sewer line break took place in St. Petersburg.)
Repeated sewage spills have an added public health threat, according to a new University of South Florida study: dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can spread with each spill.
Researchers looked at the aftermath of a 2014 sewer line break in the Joe's Creek area, north of St. Petersburg, in which untreated wastewater gushed into Boca Ciega Bay. The bacteria they found in the wastewater troubled them for a few reasons.
In tests, the bacteria was resistant to vancomycin, a "last resort" antibiotic used to treat serious infections when other antibiotics aren't working. And the vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) bacteria is able to transfer the resistance to that drug to other bacteria.
"This fuels the greater problem of increasing antibiotic resistance," according to USF News. (link: http://news.usf.edu/article/templates/?a=7437&z=220)
Sewage spills spread the bacteria in populated areas, researchers found. That raised concerns that aging sewer infrastructure, plus extreme bouts of rain, make the bacteria's spread more likely.
Genes of the drug-resistant bacteria were found for almost two weeks at the site of the spill. Researchers spent seven weeks in all sampling soil and water from the site. They published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
"People need to be aware of what may be entering the water after heavy rains, accidental spills, or after intentional sewage releases," study co-author Dr. Valerie Harwood told USF News.
She said most VRE bacteria are found in hospitals, so to find them in Tampa Bay waters was "quite concerning."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,300 fatal VRE infections occur in hospitalized patients each year, putting the bacteria on the CDC's list of "serious threats."
"These threats will worsen and may become urgent without ongoing public health monitoring and prevention activities," according to the CDC.