The River Thames seen on 21 September 2016. Photo credit: Flickr user M A L
For eels, the drugs don’t work. Tiny concentrations of cocaine flushed into rivers causes eels to become not only hyperactive but to suffer from muscle wastage, impaired gills and hormonal changes.
The impact of traces of cocaine on the physiology of European eels could be hindering their epic migrations through the oceans to reproduce, according to researchers who examined the impact of the drug.
Eels were exposed to 20 billionths of a gram of cocaine per litre (20ng/l) of water for 50 days. The cocaine-exposed eels appeared “hyperactive” and their skeletal muscle showed evidence of serious injury, including muscle breakdown and swelling.
Even after going into “rehab” – clean waters – for 10 days still showed eels with damaged muscles and increased cortisol levels. This stress hormone can cause fat wastage, and endangered European eels require fat reserves to make a successful migration to the Sargasso Sea, where they breed.
“It is likely that the eels exposed to cocaine have a reduced performance. For example, impaired gills could reduce the breathing ability of the eels; a damaged muscle could reduce their swimming ability.”
In London, researchers found 17 billionths of a gram of benzoylecgonine per litre (17ng/l), a metabolite excreted in the urine of cocaine users. In one Italian river, there were 183 billionths of benzoylecgonine (183ng/l) as well as 44 billionths of cocaine per litre (44ng/l).
The impact of illegal drugs as well as antibiotics and other pollutants on eels could be even more severe. Capaldo said: “A polluted river will not have only cocaine, but also, for example, THC, morphine, MDMA, pesticides, heavy metals, phenols and antibiotics. All these substances can interact with each other, and the resulting effects are unpredictable. So, the damages that a wild eel could experience depend on the type of contamination of the watercourse, that is related to the surrounding human activities.”
According to Capaldo, more research is required to examine how eels’ muscle damage may impair their migration and reproductive success and to establish precisely how cocaine causes so much damage to their physiology.