Cocaine May Be Causing Eels in London's River Thames to Become 'Hyperactive'

Tuesday, 22 January 2019 - 9:52AM
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Tuesday, 22 January 2019 - 9:52AM
Cocaine May Be Causing Eels in London's River Thames to Become 'Hyperactive'
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Composite adapted from Pixabay images
It's been known for some time now that improperly disposed of pharmaceuticals – including hormones, antibiotics, blood thinners, and various psychoactive compounds like antidepressants – make their way back into our drinking water in quantities that, although legally permissible, may have as-yet-unknown cumulative effects on humans. Beyond drugs that are simply thrown out or flushed away, however, there are also drugs that are excreted. In a 2011 Harvard Health Letter published by Harvard Medical School, the authors point out that "our bodies metabolize only a fraction of most drugs we swallow. Most of the remainder is excreted in urine or feces (some is sweated out) and therefore gets into wastewater." While the jury is still out on the effects of humans passively consuming these chemicals, evidence is mounting that they may be having an impact on wildlife. 


The reality of this recently emerged when a team of researchers from King's College London (KCL) found a substantial concentration of cocaine and its metabolites in the River Thames near London. The Independent reported last year that research conducted by biologists at University of Naples Federico II indicates that environmental cocaine exposure (read: cocaine in the water) may make eels – which live in the Thames – exposed to the drug "hyperactive" and cause them to suffer substantial skeletal muscle injury. The Evening Standard reports that KCL researchers found that the cocaine enters the Thames through wastewater and sewage overflow events, which occur as often as once a week due to a growing population and a Victorian-era sewer system. Complicating matters is the appetite that Londoners seem to have for the devil's dandruff: a 2015 report indicated that London has Europe's highest concentration of cocaine in its sewage


Although the Independent's headline – "Record cocaine levels in Thames probably not making fish high, experts say" – seemed to half-heartedly deny any effect on Thames eels, mainly due to the concentration differences between the Naples study and the Thames waters, the expert they consulted had fewer reservations in his assessment. "Drugs which affect us will almost always affect all animal life, and invertebrates a little bit more because their biochemistry is much more sensitive," SEA LIFE aquarium senior curator James Robsons told the Independent. "Essentially everything in the water will be affected by drugs like these. A lot of the triggers and the ways that cocaine affects the system is really primal."


Despite the severity of pharmaceutical pollution, however, Robson dismissed it as a major enviromental threat. "I would be much more concerned about things like climate change affecting the temperature and plastics pollution," he warned. "Those do much more significant damage to the ecosystem."

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