Researchers find MRSA in U.S. water treatment plants

Are wastewater plant workers at risk?

Researchers have found methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) at four wastewater treatment plants in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest.

Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from University of Maryland's School of Public Health and University of Nebraska Medical Center detailed the findings from wastewater samples collected at two Mid-Atlantic and two Midwestern treatment plants where runoff water is reused as "reclaimed wastewater" for landscape irrigation and other purposes.

The study found MRSA in 83% of the raw sewage entering the plants, but the presence of MRSA declined as the sewage was processed. Researchers found only one plant that still had MRSA present in its fully treated water. That plant was the only one that did not regularly chlorinate water.

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Although MRSA has previously been detected at wastewater plants in Sweden, the study is the first to find the superbug in U.S. wastewater plants.

"MRSA infections acquired outside of hospital settings […] are on the rise and can be just as severe as hospital-acquired MRSA," says study co-author Amy Sapkota, an assistant professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. "However, we still do not fully understand the potential environmental sources of MRSA or how people in the community come in contact with this microorganism," she adds.

The study notes that individuals infected with MRSA can shed the bacteria through their feces, skin cells, and nostrils.

"Our findings raise potential public health concerns for wastewater treatment plant workers and individuals exposed to reclaimed wastewater," says lead author Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein, adding that more research is needed to determine "the risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in treated wastewater" (Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun, 11/6; Medical News Today, 11/6).

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