Farmers are being blamed for creating a wave of drug-resistant fungi that can infect people’s lungs or blood — and which are appearing in many gardens and compost heaps.
Several forms of the “superfungi” have emerged, often infecting people with weak immune systems. They are also becoming common in hospitals, causing post-operative blood infections.
The rise of the superfungi is strongly linked to farming, where widespread use of antifungal sprays on crops has made ordinary yeasts and moulds evolve resistance to such chemicals.
Farmers use similar compounds to those used in treating humans — so fungi that evolve resistance in the wild cannot be treated when they attack people.
Aspergillus, a mould that rots compost and vegetation, is emerging as a leading killer. It has evolved drug-resistant strains and is linked with up to 400,000 UK asthma cases a year and 3,600 lung infections. The most dangerous form is “invasive aspergillosis” where the fungus enters the blood, with 4,000 cases a year, according to Professor David Denning, head of the National Aspergillosis Centre in Manchester.
“Four or five years ago only 1%-1.5% of strains tested were drug resistant. Now it has reached 13% in London and 6% in south Wales. It seems very likely that resistance is increasing, and we think farmers spraying crops with fungicide is the cause,” he said.
The drug-resistant strains can be found in most gardens. Mother-of-two Karen Hook, 50, a horticulturist from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, discovered the fungus growing in her lungs when she started coughing up green lumps of fungus.
“I started feeling really tired and coughing. I also had bad breath. The mould was growing in my lung.” The fungus had to be removed in an operation which also destroyed part of her lung.
Such cases raise fears that the rise in local authority compost heaps, linked to food recycling, could expose residents to surges in fungal spores. Some UK studies carried out downwind of such sites show spore levels 60 times above normal.
When Sandra Hicks was diagnosed with aspergillosis in 2008, doctors prescribed drugs, but her infection has proven resistant.
The pharmacist, 51, from Verwood, Dorset, said the infection would eventually kill her. “It’s destroying my lungs. I used to walk my dog for miles, but now walking up a slight incline is a problem … it’s very scary to be told the treatment isn’t working.”