As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about when it comes Beijing’s air, scientists have now discovered DNA that can lead to bacteria becoming antibiotic resistant swishing about in that filthy cocktail of stuff we snort in and out 24 hours a day.
If that doesn’t cause you to run screaming to your local neighborhood air filter store (or order one online), we don’t know what will — but don’t push the panic button quite yet.
Essentially, scientists took up samples of air, distilled out all the yecch they found in it, and tested it for DNA sequences found in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They found a lot – more than they found in wastewater, pharmaceutical pollution, mines, and human urogenital tracts (your reproductive and urinary organ system).
The good news is that the air filters and masks commonly used by those of us in Beijing are effective in helping block the spread of bacteria.
That’s because most air filtration machines utilize HEPA-standard filters, which are engineered to trap airborne particles 0.3 micrometers (µm) and larger in diameter. Most bacteria are 0.5–5.0 micrometres in length.
Similarly, most masks that meet the NIOSH N95 air filtration standard are also calibrated to 0.3 micrometers.
So as long as you stay walled up inside your filtered spaces and wear a mask wherever you go, bacteria will not pass through your filter and into your lungs where it can do its dirty work.
However, your mask and home air filter likely does not kill the bacteria, which could mean the bacteria lives to see another day, wafting out of the filter at some point or another.
For that you’ll need something more heavy duty: hospital-grade HEPA filtration units, according to Wikipedia, incorporate ultra-violet light units to kill off the live bacteria and viruses trapped by the filter.
Now back to that report: if you delve into the nitty-gritty of it (which gets a little too sciency for our Facebook-honed attention span) you’ll find enough gems in there to make you throw up a little in your mouth.
First off, a little jargon: the report tracks ARGs – antibiotic resistant genes – which are found in bacteria and make the little buggers able to survive a good dose of antibiotics (and that, as we’ve all been told, is what’s going to screw our species royally the next time a big plague rolls around).
Using samples taken in Beijing in 2013, the report’s authors found that Beijing smog harbored 64.4 different types of ARGs, more than any other environment surveyed, which included such bacteria havens as wastewater/sludge, pharmaceutical pollution, mines, and human urogenital tracts.
To be fair, samples from New York and San Diego showed comparably high numbers of ARGs, but Beijing smog was uniquely worrying in that it contains several ARG types resistant to carbapenems, which the report characterized as “a class of last-resort antibiotics.” In simple terms: if that kind of bacteria gets into your system, may God help you (as any amount of medicine certainly won’t).
“We interpret [this] as a reflection of that air comes into direct contact with many other types of environments, thereby accumulates a highly diverse collection of bacteria, including resistant ones,” the report reads.
No doubt Beijing’s bad air has tons of shit in it. But while many people think of coal burning or car exhaust, there’s also additional factors that play into why our fair city has so much unpleasant bacteria in it: things like overcrowding and untreated sewage.
There’s also systemic anitbiotics abuse: rumors persist of livestock and fish farmers treating their products with heavy antibiotics to fight off disease. And perhaps most damaging of all, a population that eats antibiotics like candy and has for a generation.
It’s only been recently that Beijing has begun restricting over-the-counter antibiotics, and even then, not so effectively. You can still rock up to many corner drug stores and walk off with your antibiotic of choice, which you can take without the aid of a doctor’s advice.
It’s just this sort of overuse and misuse that scientists say leads to bacteria evolving into unstoppable beasts. As the theory goes, casual antibiotic use kills off all the weak bacteria and leaves the strongest alive to reproduce, which eventually creates superstrains.
To put icing on the cake: a recent report reminds us that Beijing has a bunch of pharamaceutical factories upwind in good ol’ Shijiazhuang, perhaps inadvertantly pumping antibiotics into the air and water surrounding them.
For a city that was host to the epicenter of the SARS epidemic back in 2003, these are all worrying signs.
So what to do? Pack up and leave is always an option (like Zhang Ziyi did with her child last weekend). Then there’s realizing that bacteria is quite literally everywhere, and the chances of you contracting a deadly disease on your next trip to Carrefour is extremely remote, even in filthy Beijing.
Finally, you can always look on the bright side: we too as biological organisms will eventually go the way of bacteria; the next plague may wipe out most of us, but those that do survive will be immune to whatever killed the rest of us. And who knows, a Malthusian culling of a good 80 percent of the human inhabitants of our beleaguered planet may just be what Mother Earth needs.
This post originally appeared on thebeijinger.com