Gulls carry nasty tip bug

Exclusive Holly ThompsonSound Telegraph
Conservation Council of WA citizen science project manager Dr Nic Dunlop.
Camera IconConservation Council of WA citizen science project manager Dr Nic Dunlop. Credit: Picture: Holly Thompson

Penguin Island’s silver gulls may be picking up harmful bacteria from Rockingham’s landfill and passing it on to humans, posing severe health dangers including blood-poisoning and infections.

Conservation Council of WA and Murdoch University researchers found more than half the gulls in the Penguin Island colony carry at least one strain of E.coli resistant to at least one critically important antimicrobial — an antibiotic prescribed as a last resort.

The majority of the E. coli strains in the gulls are the ones most commonly found in humans, where they cause blood-poisoning and urinary tract infections.

The Rockingham landfill site is only 11km away from Penguin Island and Conservation Council of WA citizen science project manager Dr Nic Dunlop, pictured, said he believed this was where the birds were picking up the bacteria.

“About two seasons ago we swabbed a large number of silver gulls, little penguins and feral pigeons, looking for the E. coli that live in mammal guts but will also live in birds for a period of time,” he said.

“We wanted to see if the bacteria was resistant to antibiotics, particularly those that are of last resort that you are not supposed to prescribe until you have tried everything.”

Dr Dunlop said the birds could spread this bacteria to the human population, particularly those who swim or snorkel around Penguin Island.

“The shallows around Penguin Island have a large number of gulls swimming in them and a mouth full of water from there might leave you with a time bomb sitting in your gut,” he said.

“We will gradually end up with this resistant bacteria that causes disease that we can’t treat.”

Dr Dunlop said better and safer ways to manage waste were needed and has called on the State Government to implement a system which stops sanitary items such as pads and nappies ending up in regular tips.

“In order to get human E. coli that cause disease, birds have to be exposed to human faecal material,” Dr Dunlop said.

“The most likely explanation is that the gulls are picking it up dumped with organic waste at these rubbish tips.

“It is possible to dry up the supply by doing one of two things. It wouldn’t be too hard to classify pads and other similar items as clinical waste and make sure it goes through an incinerated stream.

“The other thing we should all be doing, and it is starting to happen in some places now, is that general food waste shouldn’t go to landfill, it should go to composters.”

Environment Minister Stephen Dawson was contacted for comment.

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