A COMMON ingredient in toothpaste and hand wash may be contributing to antibiotic resistance, fostering the rise of superbugs, a Queensland study has found.

The University of Queensland research has revealed that an antimicrobial compound, triclosan, used in more than 2000 products, induced antibiotic resistance in E. coli bacteria.

Lead researcher Jianhua Guo, of UQ's Advanced Water Management Centre, said that in laboratory experiments, scientists exposed E. coli to triclosan diluted in water at different concentrations for a month and then tested the bacteria's resistance to a range of antibiotics.

"We observed multiple drug resistance could be triggered by triclosan at an environmentally relevant concentration," the scientists wrote in the journal Environment International.

Although research into antibiotic resistance has tended to focus on infection control in hospitals, wastewater from residential areas can also contain high concentrations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


Dr Guo said that while it was well-known the overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the creation of resistant superbugs, evidence was previously lacking into whether non-antibiotic chemicals, such as triclosan, could also induce antibiotic resistance.

"Our discovery provides strong evidence that the triclosan found in personal care products that we use daily (including toothpaste) is accelerating the spread of antibiotic resistance," he said.

"Every day, we brush our teeth and we swallow some of the toothpaste into our gut. I'm not sure the concentration directly induces antibiotic resistance but I want to say the risk is there."

The US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan in antibacterial soap in 2016 but other countries, including Australia, have failed to follow suit because of "a lack of unequivocal" evidence.

UQ's Advanced Water Management Centre director Zhiguo Yuan said the study's findings should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate the potential impact of non-antibiotic chemicals, such as triclosan.

UQ scientists hope to secure more funding to find more direct evidence of triclosan's effects on the rise of superbugs in the environment by conducting animal experiments.

Experts have warned that by 2050, 10 million people will die worldwide every year from antimicrobial resistant infections unless a global response is mounted.

The UQ triclosan study was funded by the Australian Research Council and the UQ Foundation's Research Excellence Awards.

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