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How Mussels In Seattle's Puget Sound Tested Positive For A 100-Year-Old Opioid

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The opioid crisis in the United States is getting so out of control that it appears some shellfish in the Seattle area are contaminated with it.

Testing The Water For Contamination

Scientists from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have an interesting procedure for testing the water from the Puget Sound for contamination. They deposit mussels in cages into 18 different locations, and then analyze the mussels afterwards.

Working with the Puget Sound Institute, the scientists tested the mussels recently. They discovered that the mussels tested positive for oxycodone, which means the waters are contaminated with opioids. Oxycodone has been in clinical use for over 100 years, since 1917.

Specifically, the locations that tested positive were Bremerton's shipyard and Elliot Bay. These areas are highly urbanized and they are not near any commercial shellfish beds.

How Are Opioids Getting In Mussels?

The scientists believe that the contamination is likely coming into the water from users. Some of the oxycodone consumed by people end up in the toilet before going to wastewater treatment plants. Although the plants filter the water, there are some substances that cannot get filtered out. This is how the opioids get into the Puget Sound.

Opioid usage, and subsequently fatalities, is increasing in the United States. In 2016, 63,000 Americans died from overdoses attributed to opioids.

In addition to oxycodone, scientists discovered that some of the mussels tested for high levels of Melphalan, a chemotherapy drug that doubles as a potential carcinogen.

Future Implications Of Opioids In Musssels

Although the scientists did find oxycodone in the mussels, the amount was thousands of times lower than what most humans take. In addition, these mussels are not the same ones that humans consume.

There is still a concern about the contamination in the water.

"Those are definitely chemicals that are out there in the nearshore waters and they may be having an impact on the fish and shellfish that live there," Jennifer Lanksbury, a biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Seattle television station KIRO. "People should be wary. Hopefully our data shows what's out there and can get the process started for cleaning up our waters."

Since this testing was a one-time study, the scientists are trying to get more funding so that they can track more chemical changes in the Puget Sound. Meanwhile, researchers with the Puget Sound Mussel Monitoring Program are now using high-resolution mass spectrometry to search for more issues in the water.

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