Valium, OxyContin Found In Puget Sound Salmon From Tainted Wastewater

By Keri Blakinger 02/29/16
Traces of everything from cocaine to Zantac have turned up in the Puget Sound.
Valium, OxyContin Found In Puget Sound Salmon From Tainted Wastewater
Photo via Shutterstock

Even the fish are being affected by our drug use. Environmental scientists gathered samples from Tacoma’s Commencement Bay in 2014 and found 29 types of contaminants in the water, including everything from nicotine to caffeine to Valium to OxyContin to cocaine.

Those chemicals weren’t just in the water, though—some were found in fish tissue as well. Chemicals were detected in Chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin, and even the fish in the Nisqually estuary—which was supposed to be the study's clean reference area, since these waters receive no direct discharge, or effluent, from municipal treatment plants. 

“The concentrations in effluent were higher than we expected,” NOAA environmental toxicologist Jim Meador told the Seattle Times. “We analyzed samples for 150 compounds and we had 61% of them detected in effluent. So we know these are going into the estuaries.”

Researchers said the study probably underreports the levels of contaminant found in certain areas, like water near outfall pipes. 

Despite the high drug levels in the water and in the fish, Meador said the effects on humans will probably be minimal, in large part because people don’t eat juvenile chinook or sculpin, and because the contaminant levels in the water, while higher than expected, are still probably too low to affect humans. Probably.

But "you have to wonder what it is doing to the fish,” said Meador. It’s possible the drugs could affect reproduction, immune function and antibiotic resistance—but there could also be other drugs in the water that scientists didn’t look for. It’s also unclear what effect any of these drugs could have on predators that eat the fish. 

The drugs included in the testing were selected based on the prevalence of their use, and some could vary seasonally. Presumably, antihistamines and insect repellants occur in higher concentrations during the summer months. 

Some local treatment plants are working to remove drugs from wastewater, but oftentimes that’s easier said than done. Ibuprofen and seizure drugs, for example, are incredibly hard to get out of water.

"You have treatment doing its best to remove these, chemically and biologically, but it’s not just the treatment quality, it’s also the amount that we use day to day and our assumption that it just goes away," Betsy Cooper, an administrator in the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division, told the Seattle Times. "But not everything goes away."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.