The human toll of opioid addiction has long been documented, as communities across the country grapple with the epidemic. Shockingly, there’s now evidence that the drug is also impacting the environment, marine life, and potential food supplies.

Scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in conjunction with the Puget Sound Institute, have discovered that previously clean mussels have tested positive for oxycodone in three of 18 research locations around the Puget Sound.

So how do these contaminants end up in local waters anyway? When humans ingest opioids, they excrete traces of the drug, which end up in wastewater when when flushed down the toilet. While many contaminants are filtered out before wastewater reaches oceans, some chemicals can’t entirely be caught.

Since mussels act as “filter feeders,” they tend to absorb contaminants from their surroundings in their tissues in ways other sea life don’t. While only a trace amount of opioids were detected in the shellfish (about a thousand times smaller than an average human dose), it is still a telling measure of just how much environmental damage an already destructive epidemic is wreaking.

While mussels aren’t likely to metabolize oxycodone, other fish actually do. There was a previous study by the University of Utah which showed that zebrafish willingly dosed themselves with opioids. Scientists say other fish like salmon could possibly mimic that response. Yikes.

If there’s any good news to be found in these bleak findings, it’s that none of the mussels that tested positive were near any commercial shellfish beds. But that doesn’t mean these contaminants won’t increase or spread. It’s certainly something that warrants future observation and research, and a disturbing development that makes you realize just how many unintended repercussions human are capable of causing. Hopefully we can work to reverse and prevent them too.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Jessica is a former Associate Editor at Chowhound. Follow her on Twitter @volume_knob for updates on snacks and cats.
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