The opioid epidemic has been wreaking havoc on the United States, ending lives and families at an astounding rate. But it seems the effects are more far-reaching than what we would ever think about. Scientists at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have discovered that the highly abused pharmaceuticals are even being ingested by marine life.
Specifically, they found that oxycodone is now pervasive enough in the marine environment there for shellfish to test positive, as evidenced by mussels gathered around Puget Sound – which is a body of water along the northwestern coast of the U.S. state of Washington.
Mussels are considered “filter feeders,” as they absorb contaminants in their tissue in a concentrated way.
To measure levels of opioid contamination, researchers gathered the mussels from an aquaculture source on Whidbey Island, using cages to transplant the clean ones to 18 urbanized locations around Puget Sound. Several months later, they returned the mussels to the urban waters, and tested them again, with the help of the Puget Sound Institute.
Mussels from 3 of the 18 sites tested positive for opioids. Let’s be real: shellfish aren’t popping pills, so how are the drugs making their way into the water?
How Opioids are Entering Numerous Bodies of Water
To be blunt, when people taking opioids go to the bathroom, the medicines get flushed down the toilet, where they end up in wastewater. Many contaminants are filtered out of wastewater before it’s released into the oceans. However, wastewater management systems are incapable of filtering out all medications.
Actually, oxycodone was only one of the drugs tested in the mussels. The shellfish also tested positive for antidepressants and the common chemotherapy drug Melphalan.
Jennifer Lanksbury, a biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said:
“What we eat and what we excrete goes into the Puget Sound. It’s telling me there’s a lot of people taking oxycodone in the Puget Sound area.”
“Those are definitely chemicals that are out there in the nearshore waters and they may be having an impact on fish and shellfish that live there.” 
I’m sure some of these meds are dumped into water sources as well, by both individuals and maybe even companies (for whatever reason). Just a thought here.
Mussels don’t metabolize drugs like oxycodone, so they’re unlikely to be physically harmed by the opioids. Fish, on the other hand, might be becoming opioid addicts. Zebrafish will willingly dose themselves with opioids if the opportunity presents itself, according to scientists at the University of Utah. And, scientists say, it’s possible that salmon and other fish might have a similar response.
The Good News
The good news is that the amounts of opioids detected in the mussels were thousands of times smaller than a typical human dose. Also, none of the mussels tested are near any commercial shellfish beds. Eating mussels from a restaurant or shop won’t hurt you because they come from a clean area. 
“They’re clean and healthy and delicious. We love to eat mussels from Puget Sound. We use them for our food and we use them for contaminant analysis.” 
Even so, it’s a sad reminder of how many people are taking opioids, Lanksbury bemoaned.
“People should be wary. Hopefully, our data shows what’s out there and can get the process started for cleaning up our waters.”