If there’s one health issue affecting middle America more than any other, it is opioid addiction. The struggle of communities up and down the country who have been ripped apart by substance abuse has been well documented over the last few years, yet still precious little action has been taken. Every year, drug overdoses kill an estimated 64,000 people, and the nation’s life expectancy continues to plummet as a result. It’s a grim picture for families all across America.
The human toll is, of course, catastrophic. The news is full of stories of people who started off seeking treatment for a medical condition, became addicted to dangerously powerful prescription opioids and then had to turn to criminals when their prescription ran out. But, behind the thousands of tales of suffering, it’s slowly becoming clear that the opioid epidemic is having a more insidious effect on our society.
Earlier this year, scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife made a worrying discovery in the waters of the Puget Sound. While carrying out a survey to establish the health of local mussel populations, researchers were shocked to find that some shellfish were testing positive for oxycodone - a powerful medicinal opioid. By the end of the study, scientists concluded that as many as one in six shellfish beds were contaminated with the substance. It was clear that oxycodone and drugs like it are slowly but surely making their way into our food
How opioids end up in the food chain is a long and complex process. When we consume drugs, either as medication or recreationally, trace amounts are excreted through our faeces, which then end up being flushed away down the toilet. Thanks to our modern filtration systems, many of these contaminants are filtered out before wastewater reaches the ocean. Unfortunately, even the most advanced sanitation equipment can’t prevent all potentially harmful substances from getting through, causing chemicals to end up drifting throughout the ocean. Here, they can potentially contaminate entire ecosystems on which we rely.
Like all shellfish, mussels are at particular risk because of their role as “filter feeders”. This means that they need to take in and sieve through the water around them in order to extract their food. As a result, they are among the most likely group of animals to absorb damaging substances such as oxycodone. This, in turn, would mean that any animal unfortunate enough to eat a contaminated mussel would also absorb some of that extracted opioid, meaning that people who have never taken prescription painkillers in their life might now be at risk of developing an addiction through the food they eat. To anyone who’s witnessed first hand the damage drugs can do, this is a terrifying thought.
Fortunately for mussels, shellfish cannot effectively metabolise oxycodone, nor other substances like it, which means that they do not suffer any of the adverse effects of opium addiction. The same cannot be said of other animals in the same environment. A recent study from the University of Utah revealed that zebrafish will willingly dose themselves with opioids, and will even exhibit drug-seeking behaviour in the presence of physical danger. What’s more, it has been suggested that other fish that we eat, such as salmon, are biologically programmed to respond in a similar way. In short, if opioids make it that far up the food chain, our food could become inadvertently addicted to narcotics.
It seems that the easiest way to try and tackle the issue of opioids in our food is by looking to solve the problems we have on land. Despite years of failed programmes and millions of dollars spent on ineffective treatments, there are signs that the tide could be about to change. In May of this year, for instance, the FDA approved the first non-opioid treatment for the management of opioid withdrawal symptoms - a major step in the fight to ween our population off addictive substances for good. Were this to prove successful, it could mean a reduction in production of drugs such as oxycodone. If there are fewer opioids in the system, the chances of our food being affected will be drastically reduced.
To the relief of all seafood lovers in the Pacific Northwest, none of the mussels that this latest study unearthed were anywhere near the thousands of commercial beds that dot the region. This, however, is no reason to relax. Situations like this, particularly in an environment as dynamic as the sea, have a habit of changing rapidly - and there’s every chance that contamination could spread. Even if no further evidence of opioids is found, the very fact that a key food source can become so easily affected just goes to show the ability that we all have to influence our environment. You might never have come into contact with the thousands of people who struggle with opioids, but as this study shows, it can still be an issue that affects you.