If you’re looking to get high on cocaine you may not have to look much further than the seafood on your dinner plate.
That’s because a number of shrimp tested have been revealed to contain unusually large traces of the drug.
The story was first reported last May and has gotten more bizarre ever since.
This isn’t the first time that reports of drug-filled shellfish have surfaced. Health specialists earlier found traces of the drug oxycodone in mussels in Seattle’s Puget Sound.
And there have been recurring reports of eels in the Thames River in London being found with large traces of cocaine.
Some scientists have speculated that the snake-like creatures might have gotten “high” off the drug.
These are no longer thought to be isolated cases. Experts believe that shellfish the world over contain traces of cocaine as well as “party” drugs, anti-depressants and illegal pesticides.
The question is why.
Some analysts say that the traces of drugs may have originated in human urine that spilled out of sewage systems and was then consumed by sea creatures.
But health specialists are shocked that drug-contaminated shrimp are being found even in rural waterways.
Scientists from King’s College London and the University of Suffolk stumbled across the cocaine connection when they began testing the effects of different micro-pollutants on freshwater shrimp at 15 different sites in the rural county of Suffolk.
At all of the sites, the shrimp showed traces of illicit drugs, with cocaine being the most prominent.
“Such regular occurrence of illicit drugs in wildlife was surprising,” Leon Barron from King’s College London said in a press release. “We might expect to see these in urban areas such as London, but not in smaller and more rural catchments.”
What effects could the presence of cocaine have on wildlife or humans those that eat contaminated shrimp or other shellfish?
Not a lot, apparently. Still, when pressed, researchers at King’s College say they remain deeply troubled.
“Although concentrations were low, we were able to identify compounds that might be of concern to the environment and crucially, which might pose a risk to wildlife,” Thomas Miller from King’s College London told the magazine Gulf News.
“The impact of ‘invisible’ chemical pollution (such as drugs) on wildlife health needs more focus in the UK as a policy can often be informed by studies such as these,” Nic Bury from the University of Suffolk added.
In the Puget Sound case, researchers are especially concerned because local zebrafish are unable to metabolize opioids but apparently still take to them readily, just like a human addict would.
Lab studies have shown that given the choice, zebrafish willingly dose themselves with opioids. The fear is that salmon and other fish may have similar responses.
However, zebrafish may be especially vulnerable because 70 percent of their genes are the same ones found in humans. They also share similar biological pathways that lead to addiction, including two neurotransmitters, dopamine, and glutamate that trigger the natural reward system in the brain.
“Drugs of abuse target the pathways of the pleasure centers very effectively,” says Gabriel Bossé, a postdoctoral researcher who has studied the issue at length. “These pathways are conserved in zebrafish, and the fish can experience some of the same signs of addiction and withdrawal as people.” (An intriguing video of zebrafish “self-administering” opioids can be found here).
There is also concern that some of the substances being ingested contain carcinogens which even at low dose levels could pose a risk to human life.
For example, in addition to oxycodone, scientists found high levels of the chemotherapy drug Melphalan in the mussels.
The drug was found at “levels where we might want to look at biological impacts,” according to Andy James, who assisted with the Puget Sound study.
The results of these studies will likely prompt more shellfish testing across the globe. Already two broad conclusions are forming.
First, humans must be doing a lot more cocaine than they say in recent drug studies. In fact, finding such large traces of the drug in rural counties like Suffolk suggests that in the UK, at least, coke may well have become the nation’s drug of choice.
Second, humans are already doing major damage to marine mammals and fish across the globe through commercial overfishing and by dumping millions of pounds of plastics in the ocean that wreak havoc on their digestive systems.
It hardly seems fair to get these sweet helpless creatures hooked on our drugs, too.