Researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency recently found something in a Los Angeles sewage plant that should not be in a sewage plant. Amid millions of gallons of raw sewage that Southern Californians spew into the sewer plants every day, there was a strain of a super-lethal super bug floating around–the same one that sickened seven people and killed two in a Los Angeles hospital last year. And where does that treated waste go afterwards? Straight into the ocean, where surfers and swimmers are frolicking around with their mouths open. Of course, it’s been treated, though, so it should be ok, right? Wrong.
Before I moved to California, I had never even heard that you weren’t supposed to surf after it rained. Here, though, it’s pretty common knowledge–common enough that the usual crowds are noticeably diminished. I suppose it’s for good reason. The lack of rain in Southern California coupled with the staggering amount of vile disgustingness the state is littered with lends itself to a serious buildup. When it does rain, a torrent of shit is unleashed, everyone gets ear and sinus infections, and then we all go about our merry way pretending that we didn’t just get human feces in our ears and up our noses. After a rain, Malibu in particular smells faintly like actual shit, but it’s the shit of the wealthy, so no one says anything, because everyone knows that rich people don’t shit.
Every now and then, it’s much worse than ear and sinus infections. Last year, just after Christmas, a 71-year-old life-long surfer from San Diego died when he contracted a raging staph infection from surfing in contaminated water after a week of hard rain. Just a few months ago, in fact, I got some weird infection in my elbow that inflated my entire arm, gave me a fever of 105, and just for good measure, hit me with a seizure of some kind while I lay in my bed with no health insurance. The water here is, for lack of a few better words, fucking disgusting. I have since purchased the cheapest insanely expensive health insurance I could find. America!
But let’s get back to the superbugs the EPA found. According to the LA Times, sewage plants can’t kill them. That’s because almost nothing can–in fact, it has been coined the “nightmare bacteria” by federal officials. Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, or CRE because no one wants to type that more than once, survives nearly all known antibiotics, and it kills up to half of those who are unlucky enough to contract it. The reason CRE can survive the barrage of antibiotics we’ve created is because hospital sewage contains not only waste from patients with infections that are already relatively drug resistant, but super high levels of the antibiotics that are supposed to be treating them. When the sewage all meets up and mixes in the treatment plants, the weakest of the bacteria is killed off, and the stronger ones survive. Then they reproduce at an alarming rate, trading genes with other bugs and creating more and more so-called superbugs. For some strange reason, after the EPA found CRE living in treatment plants, they didn’t test the water that was being pumped into the ocean.
The LA Times reported that as of October of 2015, 8% of people that contracted CRE hadn’t been in a hospital recently, which, of course, means that CRE isn’t only a hospital bug anymore. When a hospital finds CRE within its walls, it’s a big deal. Patients are stuck in isolation rooms and nurses and doctors take extra precautions. And to make matters worse, CRE is happy as a clam in water and inside a body, and when we use a toilet, it piggybacks on whatever we’re putting into it.
While officials in California are continually monitoring the ocean for raw sewage, it’s not often that they test for drug-resistant bacteria. The CDC hasn’t made a recommendation on what to do about CRE-laden sewage. “The prevention and control of CRE is an evolving process,” said Melissa Brower, an agency spokeswoman, to the LA Times. “CDC will continue to assess the appropriateness of this as new information becomes available.”
Of course, in Los Angeles, where a relatively high percentage of residents are ocean-going folks, the possibility that a deadly, drug-resistant superbug is floating around is a scary one. With the CDC holding off on telling anyone what should be done until they know for sure, it’s just another indicator that human beings are on a path that we don’t want to be on.
It’s not just Southern California, either. The LA Times reported last fall that CRE was present in sewage treatment plants through out the entire country. “I tested seven different plants and I found it in all of them,” said Jill Hoelle, who works in the EPA’s office of research and development. Those tests led to a conclusion that CRE is already present in most of America’s sewage.
Pedro Alvarez is a professor of Environmental Engineering, and he is worried for what the future may hold. Years ago, before we treated our sewage, highly infectious diseases carried by dirty water were a common cause of death. With antibiotic resistant bugs in our water treatment plants, we are at risk of a return to that time. “We can save more lives by treating water than doctors can,” said Alvarez.