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Are London's Eels Really High On Cocaine? Sort of Yes, Kind of No

There's cocaine in the Thames, and there are eels in the Thames, and eels are sensitive to cocaine. These are the facts.
Eel: Paulo Oliveira / Alamy Stock Photo; Cocaine: Pixabay 

Do you ever walk up to the edge of the Thames and look at the swirling gunmetal waters beneath you and think: are the eels in there high, or not? The Thames has a powerful ancient energy, one that asks a lot of questions of us ("How long would I live for if I fell into it and gulped exactly one mouthful of it?"; "If they drained it, how many pound coins and skeletons would they find in there?"; &c.), and high eels are among the most pressing of them. Related: a recent study has found, quote-unquote, "Eels in the Thames are becoming hyperactive because of the high levels of cocaine in the city's waste water, scientists say." To the Evening Standard:


New research by a team at King's College London found that Londoners are using the class A drug consistently throughout the week, with fears that it is hurting the river’s wildlife.

"Concentrations of cocaine and benzoylecgonine remained high in wastewater across the week with only a minor increase over the weekend, which is not consistent with other cities,“ the researchers said in a paper.

"London is known as one of the highest consumers of cocaine and this suggested everyday usage."

Scientists using a monitoring station near the Houses of Parliament found there was a constant low level of cocaine entering the river, The Sunday Times reported.

And here's the bit about the eels being high:

The paper has been read alongside a separate report, published by the University of Naples Federico II last year, which showed European eels “appeared hyperactive” when put in water containing a small dose of cocaine.

You know, I hate to be "the guy who questions whether all of London’s eels are high on cocaine", but sadly I have to be: these are two separate studies, from two separate universities, almost entirely unconnected to one another, and nobody has actually studied a single Thames eel to see how high it is.

The Kings study is the usual annual "lads, there’s a lot of drugs in the water supply" bit; there’s a Europe-wide multi-city wastewater study published every year, which almost always shows that Bristol is going hard as fuck. Meanwhile, the University of Naples study found – and I can’t believe scientists are funded to do this, but go on – the University of Naples study found that if you put an eel in a tank of water containing cocaine, it will slither around more actively than if you don’t. So.

It is nice to imagine that all of London’s eels might be absolutely partying down there. It feels apt, somehow, that eels – with such a historic connection to this city, to its pie shops and the transforming face of the East End, to the slithering grey-brown Thames – might have given up on being killed and eaten and sold at markets like Victorian times, and instead have adopted the new London ways, of getting a gram in and doing slightly too much of it on a work night and sweating too much at your desk on a Wednesday morning, having a panic attack when someone asks you to write an email. The idea of eels getting extremely hyper on House of Commons run-off coke and slithering up to you at a party – "mate, mate, matematematematemate: remember The Klaxons?" – is a fun one, and I’m not above the idea of it, and neither are you.

But the environmental impact of cocaine in the water supply – or anti-depressants, even, or the contraceptive pill – is something else to think about in this multi-layered ice cream sundae of worry we all live in and endure every day. Last year’s Naples study found that trace levels of cocaine do have a physical impact on eels from a very young age: as well as making them behave more hyperactively, it found that traces of the drug accumulate in the animal’s brain, muscles, gills and skin, as well as increasing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol spikes induce fat consumption, and European eels need a layer of healthy fat for their migratory journey to the Sargasso Sea to breed, so if our eels are too tweaked out on government run-off coke it might delay their migration patterns and in turn impact on reproduction. You know how it’s actually quite difficult to have sex on cocaine? Now imagine that, but you’re an eel. A nightmare, writhing in our river, metres below us.

So, in conclusion: please stop doing cocaine in the toilets at Westminster, it’s almost certainly stopping eels from being horny enough to fuck.