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Washington Salmon Test Positive for Cocaine, Other Drugs Due to Human Waste

Contaminated fish is likely the result of chemicals getting through wastewater treatment. 

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have discovered something disturbing with the fish in Washington's Puget Sound. Some of them are on drugs.

A new study found 81 different kinds of drugs in juvenile Chinook salmon and staghorn sculpin. There were common names like Prozac, Lipitor and even over-the-counter drugs like Advil or Tylenol. But there were also illegal drugs like cocaine.

So how exactly the fish are getting human drugs in their system? The answer seems to lay with the fact many of the fish discovered with high levels of drugs were found near wastewater (effluent) treatment facilities.

Subsequent testing of the waters near these treatment facilities revealed some surprising results about what was getting through into the ocean.

"The concentrations in effluent were higher than we expected," Jim Meador, an environmental toxicologist with NOAA told the Seattle Times. "We analyzed samples for 150 compounds and we had 61 percent of them detected in effluent. So we know these are going into the estuaries."


It seems the drugs are getting into the wastewater through amounts unabsorbed by the human body in human waste or in drugs disposed of in a toilet. The Seattle Times reports some of the other drugs found include things like Flonase, Paxil, Valium, nicotine, caffeine, and antibiotics. Even other chemicals like bug spray were found.

It's uncertain if the levels of chemicals are due to more people using drugs in the area or simply the treatment process for wastewater. But it seems it is difficult to remove some of these chemicals during the wastewater treatment process. Some of them aren't under any monitoring or regulation in wastewater.

"You have treatment doing its best to remove these, chemically and biologically, but it's not just the treatment quality, it's also the amount that we use day to day and our assumption that it just goes away," Betsy Cooper, King County's permit administrator for the Wastewater Treatment Division told the Seattle Times. "But not everything goes away."

All in all, it makes for one wicked cocktail of chemicals. The good news is, Meador said effects on human health are probably non-existent because humans don't eat juvenile salmon or the staghorn sculpin. However, there are concerns over what effect it may have on animals naturally preying upon the fish. Meador's study found up to 97,000 pounds of chemicals could be getting into Puget Sound every year.

"You have to wonder what it is doing to the fish," Meador said. Other studies by Meador have shown salmon dying at a higher rate when they swim through contaminated areas of Puget Sound.

Additionally, reports a study from Scientific America found perch exposed to drugs had altered behavior where they took bigger risks and ate faster than perch unexposed. Altered fish behavior could alter the ecosystem as it could result in algae blooms and a negative impact on the perch population as more are killed by predators.

And since effects on salmon are considered as an early warning of changes to an environment, there is a possibility there are larger-ranging effects in the ecosystem that are yet undiscovered.

For now, the Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization are both looking and calling for water treatment facilities to improve treatments to slow the release of these chemicals into the ocean.

Citizens are also encouraged to help out with the problem by disposing of unwanted prescription drugs through take back programs with pharmacies instead of flushing them down the toilet.


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Washington Salmon Test Positive for Cocaine, Other Drugs Due to Human Waste