Now The Fish Could Be Addicts

I’ve just run across another unusual way our civilization is affecting the environment. Our prolific drug habits may be addicting fish.

According to a recent laboratory study, published July 6th, 2021 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, freshwater fish can get hooked on methamphetamine that washes into the waterways to the point that they actively seek the drug. If that sounds strange, the meth we use doesn’t just disappear; it travels through sewage systems and discharges from wastewater treatment plants. “Where methamphetamine users are, there is also methamphetamine pollution of freshwaters,” first author Pavel Horký, an associate professor and behavioral ecologist at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague, explained in an email. 

Despite what you’re heard about the high level of meth addiction in this country, the problem is worldwide. Concentrations of the drug, ranging from a few nanograms to dozens of micrograms per liter of water, can be found almost anywhere, according to reports in scientific journals. The July 6th study suggests even minuscule amounts could addict freshwater fish.

Fortunately for the fish, the term addiction is used somewhat loosely. “I’m not sure you can truly say these fish are addicted to methamphetamine, but they certainly show a preference for the compound … which they shouldn’t, really,” said Gabriel Bossé, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Utah who was not involved in the study. “It seems that the preference for meth dies down after just a few days,” whereas if the fish were truly addicted, that preference would persist over a longer time. But that’s still not good news. “Whether you call it addiction or not, you can argue, but it’s clear that methamphetamine changed how these animals behave,” and those effects could potentially hinder their ability to find food, avoid predators and reproduce in the wild, Bossé says. 

Since this was just a laboratory study, we still don’t know if signs of meth addiction really are showing up in the wild. And if they are, what about all the other drugs we use and discard? “There are a lot of contaminants of emerging concern — not only illicit drugs, but also standard prescription medicines, like antidepressants,” Professor Horký said.

Until further research is published, this is another reason to be mindful of what we do to our environment.

To read exactly how the study was conducted, see “Fish Get Addicted to Meth in Polluted Rivers, Go Through Withdrawal” by Nicoletta Lanese ( ).

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