Even the most skilled surfers take an occasional hit, gulping down a mouthful of water in the process. But new research shows that swallowing sea water could put you at an increased risk of ingesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In the study, published in the journal Environment International, researchers took fecal samples from 300 people in the U.K.—half regular surfers, half not. They found that 9 percent of the surfers—athletes who, according to a press release swallow 10 times more sea water than your typical swimmer—had E. coli in their systems, compared to 3 percent of non-surfers. The study further found that the go-to antibiotic for treating the bacteria, cefotaxime, wasn’t effective for killing it.
“Antimicrobial resistance has been globally recognized as one of the greatest health challenges of our time, and there is now an increasing focus on how resistance can be spread through our natural environments.” —Anne Leonard, PhD, lead study researcher
“Antimicrobial resistance has been globally recognized as one of the greatest health challenges of our time, and there is now an increasing focus on how resistance can be spread through our natural environments,” lead researcher Anne Leonard, PhD, said of this first-of-its-kind research associating surfing and antibiotic-resistant bacteria colonizing the gut.
In addition, surfers are four times more likely to have bacteria containing mobile genes, which is responsible for the bacteria resistance. The study reported this as “significant” because the genes can be passed between bacteria, potentially spreading the antibiotic resistance between different kinds of bacteria present in the body. And the problem is potentially widening: The World Health Organization projects that infections that antibiotics could previously treat but increasingly no longer can are getting more common. This means tuberculosis and food-borne illnesses alike could potentially become deadly.
Environmental health is at stake, too. According to the release, the bacteria is likely entering the water through sewage and waste pollution, with one big source being water runoff from manure-treated crops.
But while these findings may make you want to ditch surfing—or the ocean!—completely, one expert said exercising caution is the best defense.
“We are not seeking to discourage people from spending time in the sea, an activity which has a lot of benefits in terms of exercise, well-being, and connecting with nature,” said research supervisor Will Gaze, PhD. “It is important that people understand the risks involved so that they can make informed decisions about their bathing and sporting habits.”
So the next time you go on an ocean adventure, just try keep your mouth closed: You’ll get to enjoy one of nature’s wonders without having to worry about bacteria causing a total health wipeout.