Cocaine Exposure In London River Triggers Eels

By Kelly Burch 02/01/19

A study found that exposure to cocaine in the water can make fish and eels “hyperactive,” and deteriorate their bone structure. 

A landscape view of the River Thames with some of London`s modern architecture icons - London City Hall and The Shard, with people walking by the ricer

London residents use so much cocaine that the drug is often found in the waters of the River Thames, possibly affecting eels and other wildlife in the river. 

Researchers from King’s College London say that cocaine and other Class A drugs were detected in the water 24 hours after sewer overflow events, according to The Independent.  

During those events, the city’s water purification system can’t keep up, meaning that some raw sewage can make it into the river. Cocaine and other drugs from people’s urine can thus end up in the water. 

James Robson, a senior curator at the SEA LIFE London aquarium, said the drugs likely have some effect on wildlife. 

“Drugs which affect us will almost always affect all animal life, and invertebrates a little bit more because their biochemistry is much more sensitive,” he said. “Essentially everything in the water will be affected by drugs like these. A lot of the triggers and the ways that cocaine affects the system is really primal.”

A study found that exposure to cocaine in the water can make fish and eels “hyperactive,” and deteriorate their bone structure. 

“This study shows that even low environmental concentrations of cocaine cause severe damage to the morphology and physiology of the skeletal muscle of the silver eel, confirming the harmful impact of cocaine in the environment that potentially affects the survival of this species,” study authors wrote

However, Robson said it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the wildlife is getting high. 

“You haven’t got a lot of disco-dancing fish down the bottom of the Thames,” he said. Although authors of the hyperactivity study said that the fish they studied were exposed to similar levels of cocaine that are found in the water, Robson said that the fish in the study were exposed to higher levels of cocaine, which may explain their greater reactions. 

London has high rates of cocaine use, and European studies have found that sewage in the city contains high levels of the drug. In addition to cocaine, London waters also contain lots of caffeine, which researchers said “was so high that it lay outside of the quantifiable range.”

While the research about cocaine and caffeine in the waters has spawned some interesting headlines, Robson said that it is relatively unimportant compared to other issues affecting the health of the River Thames and other waterways. 

He said, “Before you would worry about something like caffeine increasing the heart rate, I would be much more concerned about things like climate change affecting the temperature and plastics pollution. Those do much more significant damage to the ecosystem.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.