Research needed into drugs’ effects on fish

From the editorial board

Researchers found unexpectedly high levels of many prescription and illegal drugs in tissue of juvenile chinook salmon like this one.
Researchers found unexpectedly high levels of many prescription and illegal drugs in tissue of juvenile chinook salmon like this one. Staff file, 2006

We Americans use a lot of drugs – prescribed drugs, ones bought over the counter, illegal drugs and ones that used to be illegal but now aren’t.

In fact, more than half of us use at least two prescriptions drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic, and about 20 percent are on five or more prescription medications.

It turns out, we’re not the only ones on drugs. So are Puget Sound fish, finds a new report, and not enough research has been done to figure out what effect that is having on their health. Whether the drugs we use are improving our health, easing our pain or altering our mood, traces of them eventually end up in our wastewater when we urinate or dispose of unused drugs by flushing them down the toilet – something we shouldn’t be doing. That wastewater ends up in Puget Sound, affecting fish.

Scientists are finding unexpectedly high levels of drugs in Puget Sound estuaries near wasterwater outfalls and in both migratory and resident fish. Researchers with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle took samples from the Blair Waterway in Tacoma and Sinclair Inlet off Bremerton in 2014. A wide array of drugs – from opioids and antibiotics to caffeine and cocaine – were found in the tissue of juvenile chinook, a migratory fish, and resident staghorn sculpin.

Equally troubling is the fact that fish from the Nisqually Estuary also tested positive for all the same drugs. That location was supposed to serve as a relatively “clean” control because no treated wastewater empties into it. Researchers suspect that leaky septic systems are to blame.

The lead author on the report, toxicologist Jim Meador, wonders whether the drugs might be part of the reason that juvenile chinook migrating through contaminated Puget Sound estuaries are dying at twice the rate of fish elsewhere.

Anything that interferes with the growth, reproduction and immunity of salmon could have a negative effect on their numbers, and many of the drugs found in their tissue have that potential. There’s also been speculation that it might be contributing to the growing problem of drug-resistant germs.

Northwest power ratepayers, businesses, governments and tribes are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Puget Sound salmon recovery efforts. We’re paying for habitat restoration, improvements to stormwater runoff, hatchery reform, monitoring and public education. Perhaps we should be directing more toward upgrading wastewater treatment to better filter out drugs and urging people not to flush unused drugs or take unnecessary medication.

The problem is expected to worsen. The Puget Sound population isn’t just growing, it’s aging, and older Americans use more medications. With more drugs being flushed down the toilet and affecting fish in ways we don’t know much about, clearly this is an area ripe for more research to help ensure we’re not flushing our salmon-recovery money away, too.