A study was recently published that showed fish could become addicted to methamphetamine. And while this may seem somewhat obvious and unimportant to most of us, there is a reason to care.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug, also known as meth, which has become extremely popular among recreational drug users in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system and give users excessive energy and euphoria, among many other effects.
Meth, perhaps the most notorious stimulant of abuse, is known for its powerful effects and ability to cause crippling addiction. In the U.S., meth use soared in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s before it was nearly eradicated through the restriction of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient used in the manufacturing process and a then common over-the-counter cold medicine.
But that doesn’t mean the problem went away. Meth abuse is on the rise again, this time resulting from smuggling efforts by Mexican drug cartels eager to profit off of America’s raging drug epidemic.
Many Americans hoped the drug epidemic was over, but 2021 and Covid-19 brought a massive resurgence in drug abuse and, particularly, drug overdose rates.
Last year the U.S. saw its highest drug overdose death rates ever, topping even the peak years of the opioid epidemic. And meth overdose deaths were a rising and contributing factor to this unprecedented tragedy.
So, we know why we should care about meth, but why fish?
Well, fish are excellent indicator species. Tragically, they suffer from minor changes in things like water temperature and chemistry, and effects on their populations can portend global changes and environmental threats.
When fish start dying or, in this case, becoming addicted to drugs, it can tell us a lot about the impact we’re having on our planet and even ourselves. And it can warn of danger.
Scientists in the Czech Republic conducted an experiment after levels of meth were detected in natural waterways and rivers where sewage and wastewater are dumped.
Because the facilities that process these wastewaters were never designed to filter out things like drugs and pharmaceuticals, we now have a massive problem on our hands. Our waters have become laced with drugs.
Globally, the consumption of both illicit and prescription drugs has reached a tipping point. Not only are we poisoning ourselves, but we are poisoning our planet. So much meth is being consumed that the sheer amount being excreted into sewers is causing trout to become meth addicts.
Researchers set up a fish tank full of brown trout, a native European species. They exposed them to water levels containing the same amount of meth detected around waterways where human waste is dumped. What they found was startling.
Not only did the trout become addicted at these levels, but they experienced withdrawal symptoms when they were placed back in a tank containing only freshwater. Withdrawal is the body’s natural response to the cessation of a drug that an organism is dependent on. It is a hallmark of drug addiction and is accompanied by intense cravings for the substance.
Next, the researchers pumped two sources of water into the tank. One was freshwater, and the other was the same meth-contaminated water from the tank they’d been in previously.
The trout that were familiar with meth chose to congregate around the source of meth-contaminated water, indicating addiction had occurred. The control group, trout that were not previously exposed to meth, avoided the meth-laced water and preferred the source of fresh, clean water.
Additionally, the fish were later autopsied, and levels of meth were detectable in their brain tissue for as many as ten days after exposure. These findings illustrate just how serious our drug problem is.
Our consumption of drugs has reached almost unbelievable proportions. Wildlife is becoming addicted to the drugs found in our waste, we’re affecting nature.
There’s no way to predict the final outcome of this entirely, but one only needs to follow the food chain to realize that this will come full circle. If fish indicate anything, it’s that we’re killing ourselves.
Michael Leach has spent most of his career as a health care professional specializing in Substance Use Disorder and addiction recovery. He is a regular contributor to the healthcare website Addicted.org and a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant.