There are vast quantities of man-made waste polluting our oceans and waterways—studies have found that fish are being poisoned by plastic microbeads and around 50 percent of sea turtles are ingesting our plastic waste. But the eels of Italy’s Sarno River have an additional concern; around 15 grams of cocaine flow down the highly polluted waterway every day—that’s around $1300-1800 worth. Scientists have been exposing European eels to low doses of the drug to see what the long term effects are, and while there’s no word on whether or not the slippery creatures become outrageously tedious to their friends, it’s clear the drug has some highly troublesome effects on the eels.
The team of Italian scientists exposed the European eels to cocaine in a concentration of 20 nanograms per liter—which, as Jess Zimmerman points out in Hakai Magazine, is more than the 13 nanograms per liter found in the Sarno, but less than the 44 nanograms per liter found in Italy’s Olona River in 2008. Rather inevitably, the addled eels showed signs of being “hyperactive compared to the other groups,” but there were also changes to the eels skin and hormone production.
Cocaine exposure caused the eels to have lower levels of mucus in their skin, which results in a decreased ability to recognize sexual partners, send out alarm signals and protect against disease and injury. The eels also encountered increased production of cortisol and prolactin, which messes with their endocrine functions. Moreover, even once the exposure to the cocaine stopped, the eels skin remained thicker, and digestive functions altered—altogether changing the life cycle of the creatures.
Of course, the notion of eels on coke seems a little ridiculous—but the exposure is real. And it’s not just cocaine we have to worry about—if 15 grams of a expensive illegal drug are flowing down one waterway every single day, think about what other legal chemicals are being pumped into our rivers at the same time? One study found that “industrial polluters dumped 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals in to U.S. waterways in 2010,” and it’s no stretch to worry about the effects of those chemicals on our rivers, the creatures that live in those waters, and the overall effect on the food cycle.