Antimicrobial residues still pose risk to environment, says EU authority

EU antimicrobial use has declined significantly in recent years
calendar icon 17 May 2024
clock icon 4 minute read

While the use of antimicrobial drugs in farmed animals and in aquaculture has decreased over the past few years in Europe, the on-going presence of antimicrobial residues in the environment poses risks to ecosystems and human health, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing published earlier this month

Expanded monitoring of antimicrobials in European waters could help better understand the effectiveness of actions to reduce the use of antimicrobial medicines according to the EEA briefing 'Veterinary antimicrobials in Europe's environment: a One Health perspective'. Such monitoring could also help identify pollution hotspots and better assess the potential impacts on humans, animals and the environment.

The assessment specifically looks at the use of antimicrobials for food-producing animals and their impact on the environment. These medicines are commonly used to prevent or treat infections in livestock and in aquaculture. They can also help treat diseases in humans and pets, however, their use can also have a negative impact on the environment and human health.

The EU has recognised that there is a need to reduce unnecessary use of antimicrobials in both humans and animals. Reducing the use in farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50% by 2030, based on 2018 levels, is explicitly included as a target in the farm to fork strategy and the zero pollution action plan. The good news is that the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals (farmed animals and aquaculture) has decreased by around 28% between 2018 and 2022. EU Member States can reach the 2030 target, however, they will need to continue taking action. The briefing notes that measures to reduce the use of antimicrobials and the need to use them in the first place, in line with the zero pollution hierarchy, are essential to prevent their release into the environment.

A health and environment challenge

Many antimicrobials are only partially taken up by livestock and the residues find their way into the environment, including as part of manure and sewage sludge that is spread on farmland as fertiliser. Similarly, antimicrobials given to farmed fish can end up in aquatic systems. Once in the soil or water, these compounds can pose a risk to ecosystems, altering microbial communities and affecting their functions.

The presence of antimicrobial residues and antimicrobial resistant bacteria and genes in the environment could also contribute to the emergence and spread antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Antimicrobial-resistant infections are estimated to cause over 35,000 human deaths per year across European Economic Area countries, according to the briefing. Infections acquired in healthcare settings currently represent a majority of all resistant infections, but more data are needed to investigate the contribution of antimicrobial use in food-producing animals to this burden of disease. However, countries that have decreased their total consumption of antimicrobials have seen a reduction in resistant bacteria.

A significant lack of information and knowledge exists across Europe on the presence of antimicrobial residues and antimicrobial resistant bacteria and genes in the environment, according to the EEA briefing. Filling such gaps is necessary to improve the risk assessment of antimicrobials veterinary medicines, strengthen surveillance and early warning, as well as identify the most effective solutions to manage risks, the briefing says.

A ‘One-Health’ approach

The briefing highlights the importance of addressing risks arising at the interface of human, animal and ecosystem health through a One Health approach, recognising that no discipline or sector of society can mitigate such risks in isolation. Implementing this approach is key to make the EU and its Member States better equipped to prevent, predict, detect, and respond to health threats, while also reducing human pressures on the environment.

In particular, the briefing supports the broader work of EU agencies on One Health, as well as the EEA’s participation in the EU Cross-Agency One Health Task Force which includes the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Today, the five EU agencies have also published a joint framework for action to support the implementation of the One Health agenda. The task force will work on implementing the plan over the next three years (2024-2026), focusing on five strategic objectives: strategic coordination, research coordination, capacity building, communication and stakeholder engagement, and joint inter-agency activities. This will ensure that the scientific advice provided by the agencies is increasingly integrated, that the evidence base for One Health is strengthened, and that the agencies are able to contribute with a united voice to the One Health agenda in the EU.

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