Food by VICE

Opioids Are Showing Up in Mussels in the Pacific Northwest

They won't get you high, but they do show just how much oxycodone is being consumed in the area.

by Jelisa Castrodale
May 29 2018, 4:02pm

Photo via Flickr user naotakem

James Beard award-winning chef and cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt has referred to mussels as “the easiest Choose Your Own Adventure one-pot meal around.” Although Lopez-Alt’s kind of Adventure is deciding between using butter, crème fraîche, or a garlic aioli in his version of moules marinières, the real question might be whether your mussels could come garnished with Narcan.

According to the Puget Sound Institute (PSI), traces of oxycodone have been found in bay mussels pulled from the waters of its namesake sound. Every two years, scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife take mussels from a pristine water source on Whidbey Island and place them at various sites in Puget Sound, using these little mollusks to test for pollutants in urban waters. (In order to eat, mussels open their shells and draw water in, filtering their microscopic meals out with their gills; as a result, any contaminants in the water can accumulate in their tissues). After two to three months, the mussels are pulled out and analyzed for any chemicals or pollutants. Although the Institute says that its researchers “typically” find everything from pharmaceuticals and antibiotics to antidepressants and cocaine in their tiny test subjects, this is the first time they’ve ever detected opioids.

“We found oxycodone in only three of the 18 sets of mussels we analyzed,” biologist Jennifer Lanksbury told KING5. “The concentration of oxycodone in the mussels were about 100 to 500 times less than than you would get in a normal therapeutic dose for humans. So you'd have to eat 150 pounds of mussels in that contaminated area to get a minimal dose.”

Andy James, a PSI researcher said that no one would collect or eat any seafood found in these areas of the sound, so maybe we don’t need the Narcan garnish. But in addition to Oxy, high levels of a chemotherapy drug called Melphalan were also present in the mussels. Melphalan is considered a carcinogen (there’s some irony for you) and it was detected at “levels where we might want to look at biological impacts.”

So what does this mean? That a lot of people in the Puget Sound area are taking opioids or undergoing chemotherapy, and they’re peeing those drugs out of their systems. “The contamination is likely coming from wastewater treatment plants,” Lanksbury explained to KIRO7.

Sadly, this isn’t unique to mussels. In 2016, researchers tested juvenile chinook salmon pulled from the Puget Sound and found “a medicine chest” of drugs in their systems, including Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, Lipitor, Flonase, Aleve, Tylenol, Paxil, Valium, Zoloft, Tagamet, OxyContin, Darvon, nicotine, caffeine, Cipro, and cocaine. (An environmental toxicologist who worked on this study said not to worry—people typically don’t eat these migratory chinook.)

“You have [water treatment] doing its best to remove these, chemically and biologically, but it’s not just the treatment quality, it’s also the amount [of drugs] that we use day to day and our assumption that it just goes away,” Betsy Cooper, a permit administrator for the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division told the Seattle Times. “But not everything goes away.”

Last year, another study found antidepressants in the brains and other assorted tissues of fish caught in the Niagara River, that connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted its first major study of “human drugs in fish tissues,” analyzing fish that were caught near wastewater treatment plants in five major US cities. Those findings—which also detected microscopic pharmacies inside each fish—prompted the EPA to expand its research to more than 150 locations. Of those fish, the only ones that were free from any kind of drugs or chemicals were caught in rural New Mexico.

Hmm. It’s almost as if people are using too many drugs.

puget sound