Commonly used antibiotics may be harming the good microbes that are essential to a healthy environment, a study warns.When people take antibiotics, their bodies break down and metabolise only a portion of the drugs. The rest is excreted and enters wastewater.

As wastewater treatment plants are not designed to fully remove antibiotic or other pharmaceutical compounds, many of those compounds reach natural systems where they can accumulate and harm microbes in nature, researchers said.

That is a big concern because many microbial species found in the environment are beneficial, playing important roles in natural cycles of nutrients, primary production and climate regulation.Some microbes also degrade organic contaminants, such as pesticides, researchers said.

"The amount of antibiotics is very, very low - there are normally nanogrammes per litre of these molecules found in natural environments," said Paola Grenni, a microbial ecologist at the National

Research Council's Water Research Institute in Italy.

"But the antibiotics and also other pharmaceuticals can have an effect even in low concentrations, the so-called environmental side-effects," Grenni added.

The release of antibiotics into natural systems is a "real-life experiment" with consequences that are not yet fully known.There's a need for more specific protections of environmental microbes given their importance to functioning ecosystems, researchers said.

It is important for nations to work to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use and the release of those antibiotics that are needed into the environment, researchers said.

Efforts should be made to equip wastewater treatment plants for removal of those compounds and to devise methods to improve the degradation of antibiotics once they reach natural environments, they said.

The study was published in the Microchemical Journal.

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