USF researchers find dangerous bacteria after Pinellas sewage spill

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreads resistance
Posted at 5:46 PM, Jul 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-21 01:04:45-04

The impact of untreated wastewater that spilled from a broken sewer line in Pinellas County in September of 2014 may have been even greater than initially believed, according to a new study published by scientists at the University of South Florida.

USF scientists say they found dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the untreated wastewater that gushed into the neighborhood surrounding 62nd Avenue North. That not only went into the ground of people’s homes, it also went into the nearby creek and ultimately into the Boca Ciega Bay.

USF says the gushing was at a rate of up to 500 gallons per minute, for an estimated total of about 500,000 gallons of wastewater.

The raw sewage that made up that wastewater smelled terrible, and the machines brought in to clean up the mess were extremely loud, remember residents, but they didn’t realize the long-lasting effects that spill had for the community.

The antibiotic-resistant bacteria called “vancomycin-resistant enterococci” (VRE) found is especially bad because VRE contains a gene capable of transferring vancomycin resistance to other kinds of bacteria. This fuels the greater problem of increasing antibiotic resistance, says USF if the study they published in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

“While we have known that raw sewage contains many disease-causing bacteria, this experience tells us that sewage and fecal pollution also carry vancomycin-resistant bacteria,” said Dr. Valerie Harwood, a professor in the USF Department of Integrative Biology and study co-author. “Most VRE are confined to hospitals, but detecting them in waters of the Tampa Bay community is quite concerning. People need to be aware of what may be entering the water after heavy rains, accidental spills, or after intentional sewage releases.”

According to study lead author, USF PhD student Suzanne Young, their finding is also a public health “wake-up call” to be more prudent with the use of antibiotics in both humans and animals.

“The more antibiotics we use – in both humans and animals - the more the antibiotic resistant organisms and antibiotic resistance genes can enter the environment and contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance, especially for those drugs considered the “last resort’ for many infections,” explained Young. “Also, we need to invest in more sustainable infrastructure for managing storm water and wastewater to decrease the frequency of sewage spills.”

The pipe that broke belongs to Pinellas County Utilities. The county tells ABC Action News that crews responded to the wastewater leak and performed necessary repairs.

“Presently, the pipeline is functioning effectively and Pinellas County Utilities staff continues to proactively monitor to ensure proper functionality,” says a county spokesperson to ABC Action News after the USF study was published.

“Antibiotic resistant bacteria are known to be found in untreated wastewater. Once wastewater arrives to a treatment facility, the wastewater can be treated to remove the majority of bacteria, including antibiotic resistant bacteria. The samples collected by USF were collected over a period of time following this spill. Subsequent to the spill, Pinellas County Utilities collected additional samples to evaluate indicator bacteria levels. Those samples met standards set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.”

The county adds that they are building an extra pipeline in the same area to increase the reliability of the pipeline infrastructure. That backup pipeline is scheduled to be completed in 2019, according to the county spokesperson.