America’s opioid crisis is far-reaching — even to Seattle-area harbors. Washington state agencies uncovered traces of oxycodone in native bay mussels. Biologist Jennifer Lanksbury told NPR member radio station KUOW, “Oxycodone is in the news right now but there are a number of other pharmaceutical products that we found. Antibiotics, the anti-depressants, chemotherapy drugs, heart medications that we’re finding in mussels.”

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Mussels are “among the most widely used organisms for monitoring toxics in marine life,” according to the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. During filter feeding, they pick up contaminants, so “at any given time their body tissues record data about water quality over the previous two to four months.” And these mussels with traces of opioids, part of Washington’s Puget Sound Mussel Monitoring Program, had plenty to reveal about pollution. The Puget Sound Institute (PSI) at the University of Washington Tacoma said scientists often find chemical compounds including cocaine or pharmaceuticals in the waters of Puget Sound, but this is the first time they’ve found opioids in local shellfish.

Related: “Microplastics have been found in mussels everywhere scientists have looked”

Oxycodone was present in amounts thousands of times lower than a human dose, PSI said, and scientists think the mussels won’t metabolize the drug. The mussels were also located in highly urbanized areas, not close to commercial shellfish beds. But the discovery could be of concern for fish. Zebrafish will willingly dose themselves with hydrocodone, according to a 2017 study, and scientists think salmon and other fish in Puget Sound may respond similarly.

Researchers also found Melphalan, a chemotherapy drug, in the mussels in high levels “where we might want to look at biological impacts,” according to PSI research scientist Andy James. PSI said the mussels “had ingested amounts of Melphalan relative by weight to a recommended dose for humans.”

+ Puget Sound Institute


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