Scientists and Surfers team up to assess antibiotic resistance

Posted on 8th June 2015

Scientists in Cornwall have undertaken an innovative study aimed at shedding light on how surfers exposed to human sewage and diffuse pollution in seawater might be affected by antibiotic resistant bacteria.

To help them, the group from the University of Exeter Medical School joined with environmental charity, Surfer’s Against Sewage, calling on surfers across the country to help by providing samples gathered from rectal swabs.

In the first project of its kind, the Beach Bums study  recruited 150 surfers and bodyboarders who surf at least three times a month. In a novel approach to data collection, the team is also asked each participant to recruit someone who doesn’t surf.

The swabs gave researchers an insight into the microbes that are colonising participant’s guts and they are hoping that by comparing samples from those who regularly spend time in seawater with those who don’t, they’ll were able to build a clearer picture of how antibiotic resistance in the environment can affect people.

The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria has been described as one of the greatest health threats facing humans today. As microbes become immune to existing antibiotics, our ability to treat common infections is rapidly diminishing and a UK government review  called on the global pharmaceutical industry to create a £1.3bn innovation fund into new antibiotics research.

Anne Leonard, one of the researchers leading the study, said:

“We know that surfers regularly swallow lots more seawater than other beach users – around 170 ml per session, which is more than 10 times that of sea swimmers. We’ve already shown that this water may contain antibiotic resistant bacteria but we have no idea how this might affect the microbes that live in our guts, or how it could impact upon health. So we’re asking healthy adults who surf or bodyboard at least 3 times a month to take part in a study that will shed much needed light on the effects of marine pollution.”

Andy Cummins, Campaigns Director at Surfers Against Sewage, said:

“Whilst water quality has improved dramatically in the last 20 years, coastal waters can still be contaminated by sewage from both animals and humans, introducing billions of potentially harmful bacteria into the ocean environment. We wanted to build a clearer picture of the risks people face when entering the water, so we can ensure our seas are safe for everyone to enjoy. ”

The study found  found that regular surfers and bodyboarders are three times more likely to have antibiotic resistant E. coli in their guts than non-surfers.

In this interview, Professor Will Gaze, a leading international researcher on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) at the University of Exeter spoke with Hugo Tagholm, SAS CEO & Founder. They discuss how collaboration between the academic team, the public and the charity has brought about policy impact.


I’m very proud to run Surfers Against Sewage. SAS are much more than just surfers and sewage nowadays, although water quality is one of our campaigns and is at the forefront of public and political consciousness recently – not least because of the work that we’ve done with the European Centre for Environment and Human Health on antimicrobial resistance.

We’re a small team here, with about 200 reps around the country and we project all of their voices and concerns through an Ocean Conservation All Party Parliamentary Group. We work on plastic pollution, water quality, marine, ocean and climate issues – which is a big and growing portfolio and I’m really pleased to see how our campaigns and work is helping to drive the new wave of action on water quality.  It’s been fantastic to collaborate with you Will and the team at ECEHH.


Tell us about how our partnership developed and about working on the Beach Bum Survey with Dr Anne Leonard, an environmental epidemiologist and microbiologist at the University of Exeter and how this has had so much policy traction.


It’s always a great pleasure to work with your team and Anne Leonard was great to work with directly – and collaboration means a lot of us. We’re very complimentary organisations and we have very complimentary approaches. Your team helps us to ask the bigger questions about the importance of water quality to human health and how we can call for even more ambitious and realistic interventions, supported by the latest science and that’s what’s important to us. Whilst we’re a fun and engaging organisation, everything that we do needs to be rooted in the latest data and the latest science and if it’s not, we will never have the campaigning successes – and we need to make sure that we always follow that route. So we developed a really close rapport over the course of the Beach Bum Survey, which was a really challenging study to carry out together. I think it was a first for us to ask our volunteers to give rectal swabs as part of any study we’ve done. So in a way, the combination of really great emerging science on one of the biggest issues of our time and quite a humorous approach at some stages, with a really active and passionate group of water users who engaged with us – whether they were surfers, swimmers, kayakers or just holiday makers – was a potent combination to help to drive this project along and I’m so pleased to see the outcomes.


That study has been cited in the UK five year AMR study, which is the most important piece of policy work around AMR in the country and we lead the world in terms of AMR policy (relating the the environment). Dame Sally Davis, the UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, has been driving the agenda so successfully in recent years. But did you find any surprises in working with us as academics?


Of course the gearing of a campaigning organisation and a scientific organisation always takes a bit of work to make sure they mesh and get the right things at the right time and I think the way that we built the relationship, the way that we communicated together and the closeness of the team – and even the physical proximity of being around the corner – really helped us to deliver that. There were no nasty surprises. We addressed challenges together. There was a challenge to get volunteers because of the intimacy of the request but we all came together to get over those hurdles so it was good and often the best projects are the most challenging ones. I found it really rewarding and I know the team did, particularly when we see what a big impact it has had and continues to have.


Is there anything you can say about what this research and collaboration has led to?


If we look at the successes of the 1990s, which we were part of, including on coastal water quality, I would consider that to be the first wave of tackling sewage and water quality issues. Of course, after that investment, we’re now in the second wave of water quality issues on our rivers and our coastline, particularly with the number of people who are now using the water for recreation – not only surfers but open water swimmers, kayakers, stand up paddle boarding etc. There’s an explosion of participation and so our blue spaces have become even more important. The work that we’ve done with the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, the work we do through the Safer Seas Service, has really helped lead the way on engaging the public with this and pushing for the next wave of investment. So we still have a lot to do on coastal water quality. We’ve seen record levels of political engagement, thanks to our studies and thanks to the Safer Seas Service over the last 12 to 18 months. We now want to see this next Ocean Decade, really committed to delivering the next wave of progress on water quality. Also, we need to see much more action on our rivers where we see so many problems of combined sewer overflows and diffuse pollution from farming and agriculture and so for me, this decade should be to look back to the nineties and say we want to achieve the same level of impact and collaboration and this will be key to solving all these issues

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