HEFEI, May 12 -- Research revealing high antibiotic concentration in China's surface water has caused widespread concern over the safety of drinking water.
"To drink water means to take medicine," said a satirical posting on Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo.com. "No wonder doctors always prescribe water as a cure for flu and many other diseases."
China's surface water was found to contain 68 kinds of antibiotics with much higher concentrations than in water of developed countries, according to a report by the Chinese Science Bulletin, an academic journal.
Another 90 kinds of non-antibiotic medical ingredients were also detected, according to the report released last week.
In some rivers, every liter of sample water was found to have several hundred nanograms of antibiotics, compared with less than 20 nanograms in water of developed countries.
The report, issued by the East China University of Science and Technology, along with Tongji and Tsinghua universities, analyzed pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs).
PPCPs include various kinds of cosmetics, prescription medicines, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and sedatives. China produces more than 33,000 tonnes of PPCPs each year, which partly explains why such a high concentration was found, said the report.
The main sources of PPCPs are sewage plants, livestock waste water, pharmaceutical manufacturers, hospitals and cropland.
Official figures showed 70 percent of China's drugs are antibiotics, compared with 30 percent in Western countries.
Of all the antibiotics taken, only 20 percent is absorbed by humans. The rest is excreted and is a threat to nature, said Prof. Yu Feng with China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province.
At least 15,000 tonnes of drugs expire and end up in bins every year, said Prof. Yu. "The waste, if not treated properly, often contaminates surface water."
The wide use of antibiotics in the animal husbandry industry also worsens the risk of water and soil pollution, he said.
Though several environment engineering specialists claimed the current antibiotic levels may not immediately be a threat to drinking water safety, health professionals have warned of looming risks.
PPCPs are invisible enemies to human beings, said Prof. Yu. "Antibiotics in water, when taken by people, will cause drug-resistance and reduce the effect of drugs in case of ailments."
On the other hand, when antibiotics enter the food chain and accumulate in the human body, it will impair the immunity and impact on future generations, he said.
"It is high time to tighten antibiotic management, including use and reclamation," said Sun Binyuan, an official with Anhui provincial food and drug administration in Hefei. "Doctors should face penalties in case of antibiotic abuse."
Meanwhile, he said China should follow the European Union's example to ban antibiotic ingredients in fodder, and step up research of substitutes to protect the interest of farmers while minimizing environmental risks.
In a government work report delivered to the National People's Congress in March, Premier Li Keqiang announced a plan on clean water, part of the "war on pollution".