The Cost of Cheap Drugs? Toxic Indian Lake Is ‘Superbug Hotspot’

Hyderabad, India--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.

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, Aurobindo Pharma Ltd and Hetero Drugs Ltd, and U.S. giant Mylan Inc, say they comply with local environmental rules and do not discharge effluent into waterways.

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.

Those findings are disputed by local government officials and industry representatives.

After protests and court cases brought by local villagers a 20-km (12-mile) pipeline was built to take effluent to another plant near Hyderabad. But activists say that merely diverted the problem--waste sent there, they say, mixes with domestic sewage before the treated effluent is discharged into the Musi river.

A study published this year by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, found very high levels of broad-spectrum antibiotics in the Musi, a tributary of the Krishna, one of India’s longest rivers.

Nearly a dozen current and former officials from companies producing medicines in Patancheru told Reuters that factory staff from various firms often illegally dump untreated chemical effluent into boreholes inside plants, or even directly into local water bodies at night.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity and Reuters was unable to independently verify those allegations.

A series of local court cases have been filed stretching back two decades, accusing drug companies of pollution and local authorities of poor checks. In some cases, companies have been ordered to pay annual compensation to villagers, but many are still grinding through India’s tortuous legal system.

While pollution of farmland is a serious problem for villagers who depend on it for their livelihood, the potential incubation of “superbugs” in Medak’s waterways has wider implications.

The issue is particularly worrisome in India, where many waterways also contain harmful bacteria from human sewage. The more such bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the greater the chances they will mutate and render such drugs ineffective against them.

The risk is that resistant bacteria would then infect people and be spread by travel.