Factories in India making cheap antibiotics for the world are dumping their waste, with grim consequences for people living nearby – and global health too
THE Medak district, to the north-west of Hyderabad in southern India, was once a pristine landscape. People came to bathe in the cool, refreshing lakes and streams. These days the air is foul. With every breath, chemicals irritate your lungs and, after a while, you feel nauseous. The colour of the water doesn’t help: it ranges from bright orange to deep brown, and is often covered in a thick layer of white foam.
The reason for this blight is not well hidden. Behind high walls and barbed wire fences, factories churn out cheap drugs for the global market. Tall chimneys belch black smoke and tankers trundle along dirt tracks under cover of darkness to dump toxic chemical waste. “It’s like a slow poison,” says Batte Shankar, the head of one village we visited. “When you Europeans are taking these antibiotics to heal, it is good for you. But we are suffering.”
However, when we came to the region to investigate the environmental situation and its consequences for the health of the people who live there, we were also aware of something even more insidious.
The foetid lakes and streams contain extraordinarily high concentrations of antibiotics, creating reservoirs of the drug-resistant pathogens that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Some suspect these places might even be incubating new superbugs that could rapidly spread around the world.
Now the challenge is to figure out whether people in this part …