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Cocaine and pharmaceutical drugs found in river wildlife

A team of researchers led by King’s College London has discovered a broad range of chemicals, including illicit drugs and pesticides, in UK river wildlife. The study was the first of its kind to examine how animals such as freshwater shrimp may be affected by exposure to various micropollutants.

“Although concentrations were low, we were able to identify compounds that might be of concern to the environment and crucially, which might pose a risk to wildlife,” said study lead author Dr. Thomas Miller. “As part of our ongoing work, we found that the most frequently detected compounds were illicit drugs, including cocaine and ketamine and a banned pesticide, fenuron. Although for many of these, the potential for any effect is likely to be low.”

Prescription medicines, drugs, and other consumer products often make their way into rivers, releasing thousands of different chemicals which have the potential to cause environmental harm. The team collected samples from five catchment areas and 15 different sites across the county of Suffolk in England.

The researchers discovered that traces of cocaine were present in all of the samples collected. Other illicit drugs such as ketamine, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals were also found to be widespread in the shrimp that were tested.

“Such regular occurrence of illicit drugs in wildlife was surprising,” said study co-author Dr. Leon Barron. “We might expect to see these in urban areas such as London, but not in smaller and more rural catchments. The presence of pesticides which have long been banned in the UK also poses a particular challenge as the sources of these remain unclear.”

“Whether the presence of cocaine in aquatic animals is an issue for Suffolk, or more widespread an occurrence in the UK and abroad, awaits further research,” explained Professor Nic Bury from the University of Suffolk. “Environmental health has attracted much attention from the public due to challenges associated with climate change and microplastic pollution. However, the impact of ‘invisible’ chemical pollution (such as drugs) on wildlife health needs more focus in the UK as policy can often be informed by studies such as these.”

The study is published in the journal Environment International.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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