News Feature | March 22, 2016

'Nightmare Bacteria' Found At SoCal Sewage Plant

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A so-called “nightmare bacteria” that kills nearly half of its victims has been found in a wastewater treatment plant in Southern California, and sewage plants do not seem capable of killing it.

“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,” The Inertia reported.

The superbug is known as carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. The U.S. EPA declined to reveal the name of the sewage plant where the bug was found, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“A growing number of studies show sewage plants can't kill the superbugs. Instead the facilities serve as ‘a luxury hotel’ for drug-resistant bacteria, a place where they thrive and grow stronger, said Pedro Alvarez, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, one of the scientists studying the problem,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

"Chlorine is just not doing it," Alvarez said, per the report.

Big risks are not news to sewage plant operators. Water Online’s Kevin Westerling previously reported that the jobs of sewage plant workers have become increasingly dangerous as the material they encounter becomes “increasingly pathogenic.” Changes in water management policies are part of the problem.

“Consider that a single bacterium will split, under proper conditions, every 20 minutes; the exponential growth rate amounts to 69 billion in a matter of 12 hours. With today’s water conservation efforts creating less flow and longer retention times — think low-flow toilets and urban sprawl — sewers are virtual petri dishes for new bacteria and viruses,” the report said.

CRE is a hospital-related problem. Federal officials have previously warned that scopes inserted down patients’ throats are another way CRE may spread.

“The alert from the Food and Drug Administration came a day after California hospital officials reported that five patients had fallen ill and two had died from what they said were improperly sterilized scopes at Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center,” The New York Times reported.

But now, the bug has become a rising threat outside the hospital setting, and experts worry about the risk to swimmers and surfers in the ocean near where treated wastewater is discharged.

“Already officials are worried about the surprising number of people sickened with CRE who have not recently visited a medical facility: 8%,” the LA Times reported, citing an October study.

"The idea of CRE flowing down our sewer pipes gets me nervous," said James McKinnell, an infectious disease expert at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, per the report. "We should be testing our runoff."

For similar stories, visit Water Online’s Contaminant Removal Solutions Center.