Fish May be Getting High on Cocaine: River Pollution from Treatment Plants

First Posted: Jul 24, 2015 12:46 PM EDT

Are fish getting high on cocaine? Scientists have discovered morphine, cocaine and oxycodone in the surface waters in Canadian rivers. The findings could have huge implications for riparian ecosystems.

In this latest study, the researchers examined water discharged from wastewater treatment plants in the Grand River watershed in southern Ontario.

Wastewater treatment plants clean the bulk of contaminants from wastewater that arrives from sources ranging from household wastes to chemical plants prior to discharging the water into the river. At some distance downstream in the river, a drinking water plant then further treats the water prior to consumption.

"Improving our wastewater treatment processes can help clean up our drinking water," said Viviane Yargeau, one of the researchers, in a news release. "While previous studies have shown that there are trace elements of various chemicals that remain in our drinking water, what is novel about this research is that we looked at the chemicals that are found in the water course between the wastewater treatment plant and the drinking water treatment plant. And what we found has some disturbing implications for the aquatic environment."

In fact, the researchers found trace amounts of morphine, cocaine and oxycodone in the water. While drinking water treatment plants remove most of the contaminants, improvements to wastewater treatment plants could better protect drinking water and the environment-especially the animals that live in rivers.

Currently, the researchers plan to look into how improvements of wastewater treatment and natural processes along rivers impact the presence of contaminants of concern in our drinking water.

The findings are published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

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