A study of common abuse of antibiotics in China has sparked heated public discussion and renewed fear about drug resistant “superbugs”.

Scientists from the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences,  studied river pollution in China caused by antibiotic emissions.  They reported their results in the Environmental Science and Technology magazine in the US in May.

The study found that China consumed 162,000 tonnes of antibiotics in 2013, equivalent to half of the antibiotics consumed by the entire world. Fifty-two percent of China’s antibiotic use was consumed by animals while 48 percent was by humans.

Researchers found over 50,000 tonnes of antibiotics were released into the environment through water and soil. An antibiotics pollution map drawn by scientists based on a decade of data collection showed the Pearl River, Hai River and Yangtze River basins – some of the most densely populated areas in China – were also some of the most polluted.

Water samples taken from Chinese rivers contained an average of 303 nanogrammes of antibiotics per litre, which is about 2.5 times the level in the US, 15 times the level in Germany and 33 times the level in Italy.

superbug guangzhou
Photo: NetEase News.

A report by the Economic Information Daily – a newspaper managed by state wire agency Xinhua – which cited the antibiotics study, was carried on multiple online news platforms on Monday. The report said the abuse of antibiotics had contributed to the emergence of “superbugs” capable of resisting different kinds of antibiotics.

Many commenting on the story on social media said antibiotics injections are often abused in China despite a government crackdown. Some expressed fears that future generations would have to fight much harder to kill common diseases because of drug-resistant bacteria.

In 2010, two newborns and an 83-year-old lung cancer patient in China were found to be infected with superbug “NDM-1.” The babies recovered after treatment but the older patient did not. The bacteria had previously been found in India, the US, UK and Japan.

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.