A total of 273 Escherichia coli isolates from raw and treated municipal wastewaters were investigated to evaluate the frequency and persistence of antibiotic resistance and to detect the occurrence of conjugative R plasmids and integrons. The highest resistance rates were against ampicillin (22.71%), tetracycline (19.41%), sulfamethoxazole (16.84%) and streptomycin (14.28%). Multiple antibiotic resistance was present in 24.17% of the isolates. Several multiple antibiotic-resistant isolates proved to be able to transfer en bloc their resistance patterns by conjugative R plasmids with different molecular sizes and restriction profiles. Class 1 integrons of 1 or 1.5 kbp were found in 5 out of 24 representative multiresistant E. coli isolates. Although wastewater treatments proved to be effective in eliminating Salmonella spp. and in reaching WHO microbiological standards for safe use of wastewater in agriculture, they were ineffective in reducing significantly the frequency of plasmid-mediated multiple antibiotic resistance in surviving E. coli. Since multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria carrying integrons and conjugative R plasmids can constitute a reservoir of antibiotic-resistance genes in wastewater reclaimed for irrigation, risks for public health should be considered. Bacterial strains carrying R plasmids and integrons could contaminate crops irrigated with reclaimed wastewater and transfer their resistances to the consumers' intestinal bacteria.

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