Centuries ago, Indian princes would bathe in the cool Kazhipally lake in Medak. Now, even the poorest villagers here in India’s baking south point to the barren banks and frothy water and say they avoid going anywhere near it.
A short drive from the bustling tech hub of Hyderabad, Medak is the heart of India’s antibiotics manufacturing business: a district of about 2.5 million that has become one of the world’s largest suppliers of cheap drugs to most markets, including the United States, reports Reuters.
But community activists, researchers and some drug company employees say the presence of more than 300 drug firms, combined with lax oversight and inadequate water treatment, has left lakes and rivers laced with antibiotics, making this a giant Petri dish for anti-microbial resistance.
“Resistant bacteria are breeding here and will affect the whole world,” said Kishan Rao, a doctor and activist who has been working in Patancheru, a Medak industrial zone where many drug manufacturers have bases, for more than two decades.
Drugmakers in Medak, including large Indian firms Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd (REDY.NS), Aurobindo Pharma Ltd (ARBN.NS) and Hetero Drugs Ltd, and U.S. giant Mylan Inc (MYL.O), say they comply with local environmental rules and do not discharge effluent into waterways.
National and local government are divided on the scale of the problem.
While the Central Pollution Control Board (PCB) in New Delhi categorizes Medak’s Patancheru area as “critically polluted”, the state PCB says its own monitoring shows the situation has improved.
The rise of drug-resistant “superbugs” is a growing threat to modern medicine, with the emergence in the past year of infections resistant to even last-resort antibiotics.
In the United States alone, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 2 million serious infections and 23,000 deaths annually, according to health officials.
Thirteen leading drugmakers promised last week to clean up pollution from factories making antibiotics as part of a drive to fight the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, while United Nations member countries pledged for the first time to take steps to tackle the threat.
Patancheru is one of the main pharmaceutical manufacturing hubs in Telangana state, where the sector accounts for around 30 percent of GDP, according to commerce ministry data. Drug exports from state capital Hyderabad are worth around $14 billion annually.
Local doctor Rao pointed to studies by scientists from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg that have found very high levels of pharmaceutical pollution in and around Kazhipally lake, along with the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes.
The scientists have been publishing research on pollution in the area for nearly a decade. Their first study, in 2007, said antibiotic concentrations in effluent from a treatment plant used by drug factories were higher than would be expected in the blood of patients undergoing a course of treatment. That effluent was discharged into local lakes and rivers, they said.
“The polluted lakes harbored considerably higher proportions of ciprofloxacin-resistant and sulfamethoxazole-resistant bacteria than did other Indian and Swedish lakes included for comparison,” said their latest report, in 2015, referring to the generic names of two widely used antibiotics.
Those findings are disputed by local government officials and industry representatives.
The Hyderabad-based Bulk Drug Manufacturers Association of India (BDMAI) said the state pollution control board had found no antibiotics in its own study of water in Kazhipally lake. The state PCB did not provide a copy of this report, despite several requests from Reuters.
“I have not seen any credible report that says that the drugs are no longer there,” Joakim Larsson, a professor of environmental pharmacology at the University of Gothenburg who led the first Swedish study and took part in the others, told Reuters by email.
“There might very well have been improvements, but without data, I do not know.”