LA’s Sewer Superbug Nightmare, By the Horrifying Numbers

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The LA Times reports that “a lethal superbug” has been found in a local sewage facility, and so many Angelenos may be wondering if the apocalypse is finally upon us. The drug-resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, seems to be finding its way from area hospitals to sewage treatment centers that are not equipped to kill the bacteria before eventually dumping it offshore.

This whole process is somewhat complicated and definitely horrifying, so let’s go ahead and break it down by the numbers:

4: Number of sewage treatment plants operated by LA Sanitation.

2 million: Gallons of sewage pouring out of Los Angeles hospitals daily.

0.5: Percent of total sewage that comes from hospitals.

4: Number of people infected with CRE in the recent outbreak at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

67: Number of people exposed to the bacteria in the same outbreak.

75: Number of hospitals in California that have reported CRE cases.

50-50: Approximate survival rate of patients infected with CRE.

8: Percent of people afflicted with CRE who have not recently visited a medical facility.

7: Number of sewage plants nationwide that the Environmental Protection Agency has tested for CRE, including one in Los Angeles. The superbug has been found in all of them.

190: Feet below the ocean surface at which sewage is released.

689,000 to 4 million: Number of people sickened each year while swimming in Southern California, according to a study conducted between 2000 and 2004.

All this may seem rather alarming, but there is good news. First, there haven’t been a ton of CRE cases yet that haven’t been linked to a hospital visit. Second, hospital sewage doesn’t account for a large percentage of what is treated at area facilities. Furthermore, no one has actually tested Southern California’s ocean water for CRE yet, so it’s not clear how much of the bacteria is ending up in the ocean, if any.

Map of Los Angeles sewage treatment plants
Map of Los Angeles sewage treatment plants
LA Sanitation

The bad news is that scientists studying the problem have suggested that sewage treatment processes may be helping the bacteria to survive and grow stronger. Yes, that’s right, the superbugs might actually be getting even more super once they make their way into treatment centers. Will the bacteria bring about the end of times? That’s unclear, but maybe think about putting on a nice thick wetsuit next time you’re at the beach.

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