SEATTLE (NEWS CENTER Maine) - Opioids found in sea creatures: a sign of the country's drug epidemic or a benign coincidence?

Traces of oxycodone were found in mussels in the Puget Sound off the coast of Seattle. “The mussels are showing us that there is oxycodone in the water there, which means that other species in the water being exposed to it. We just can't necessarily find it in those other species,” explained biologist Jennifer Lanksbury from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lanksbury’s team discovered the traces of opioids in the mussels – a result, she says, of increased drug consumption. She the traces likely come from wastewater that filters back into the ocean, from people either excreting traces of opioids or flushing pills down the toilet.

Maine scientist Graham Sherwood from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute says these results don't surprise him. “We typically associate highly urbanized waterways with contaminants anyway,” he explained.

Highly urban areas are usually highly contaminated. This doesn't count Portland's shoreline, but does include Boston's.

The amount of oxycodone found was rather small – not yet a threat to other fish or humans. “You would have to eat about 150 pounds of mussels from that contaminated location to even get a minimal dose [of oxycodone],” Lanksbury explained.

While the oxycodone is new, discovering drugs in shellfish is not. “Definitely other pharmaceuticals have been measured in other studies including antibioitcs, heart medication, chemotherapy drugs. That's nothing new,” Sherwood said.

Lanksbury agreed – and said her study showed similar results. “We found antibiotics in all the samples, antidepressants including Zoloft, heart medication” she said.

So, should the drug discovery worry Mainers? Both scientists say not yet. “We think that this is a problem that's really restricted to urbanization in Puget Sound in the big cities,” Lanksbury explained.
Both Lanksbury and Sherwood say mussels are good species to test for two reasons. One - they don't have a functioning liver, so they don't process drugs. Two - they stay put, so they're a good indicator of the water around them.