Researchers find redfish, Florida coastal fish contaminated with prescription drugs

Opioids, heart pills, even caffeine found in Florida fish

Indian River Lagoon. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The million-plus people who live along the Indian River Lagoon take unknown doses of medications each day for everything from ordinary aches and pains to life-threatening infections, according to our News 6 partners at Florida Today.

Now researchers are finding these same medications in the lagoon’s wildlife.

Biologists have known for years about antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in Indian River Lagoon dolphins that had been exposed to antibiotics through sewage flowing into the lagoon.

Now, new research by Florida International University finds that redfish in the Indian River Lagoon and elsewhere in Florida reflect the lives of the Sunshine State’s residents: Caffeine that perks us up. Psychoactive meds that even our mental keels. Pills to keep our hearts in rhythm. And countless opioids that ease our pains but inflict among the worst long-term harm to local fish populations.

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FIU researchers find common drugs for those ailments and many more in redfish, as our sewage systems fail to keep our flushed pharmaceuticals at bay, with uncertain consequences for those of us who eat the fish we hook in Florida.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Ocean Research & Conservation Association One Health Indian River Lagoon Fish Monitoring project also is finding a litany of potential health snags with eating local fish: algae toxins, pesticides, metals and other contaminants.

Here’s a summary of what’s turning up in Florida’s fish, lately, and what you can do to protect yourself, your family and the environment:

Why are more drugs popping up in Florida waters?

Aging boomers pop more pills to keep fit. Farmers feed more antibiotics and hormones to fatten livestock. Most of these drugs and personal-care chemicals wind up down the drain, into sewage, land-applied sludge, reclaimed water and ultimately runs off into the Indian River Lagoon, St. Johns River and other Florida waters.

Why should I care?

How these so-called “Emerging Substances of Concern” alter ecological health remains mostly unknown, as new chemical introductions far outpace state and federal budgets for research and monitoring. But new research suggests growing threats to humans and wildlife.

The biggest concern, ecologists warn, is antibiotics reaching coastal waters, creating breeding grounds for “superbugs” resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics. Scientists have found such bacteria in the guts of one in every five lagoon dolphins tested, making them susceptible to disease and “reservoirs” for stronger bacteria more likely to make people sick.

But what’s new about all this?

recently released study by FIU and the nonprofit Bonefish & Tarpon Trust — based in Miami — found pharmaceuticals in redfish throughout state waters.

Researchers, led by Jennifer Rehage, FIU associate professor, sampled 113 Florida redfish last year for 94 commonly prescribed drugs in nine Florida estuaries.

“Whatever we’re putting in our wastewater, we’re going to be exposed to,” Rehage said.

What did the FIU study find in redfish?

Of 113 redfish, 94% had drugs in their systems and 26% at “concerning” levels. The most common detected drugs, highest to lowest, were cardiovascular meds, opioid pain relievers and psychoactive meds. Twelve drugs accounted for more than 97% of detections.

Researchers found flecainide, which treats heart arrhythmias, and tramadol, an opioid pain reliever in more than half of the fish sampled.

Which drug might be of most concern?

At least eight of the drugs found in redfish are known to harm other species of fish. Tramadol, a painkiller, may be of most concern because it can delay fish eggs from hatching and alter fish behavior in ways that harm the species long-term reproduction success.

Although not approved for use in the United States, the researchers found flupentixol, an antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia and depression, above safe levels in one in five of the redfish samples, at “very concerning levels of exposure for redfish,” the release said.

Which Florida estuaries had the most drug detections per redfish?

The highest drug detections per fish were in Apalachicola and Tampa Bay, with intermediate detections in Charlotte Harbor, Cedar Key, Pensacola, St Augustine, and Jacksonville, and lowest in Florida Bay and Indian River Lagoon.

Why were there fewer drugs in lagoon fish?

Rehage said that’s because they could only find redfish in the very remote, limited reaches of the northern lagoon, where there was remaining seagrass. So although there were very few fish to find, they were able to sample them in the healthiest outskirts of the lagoon, far from sewage discharges.

What has ORCA found in other lagoon fish?

Some 250 volunteers have been helping the Ocean Research & Conservation Association One Health Indian River Lagoon Fish Monitoring project studying those gather fish since 2019 from the Indian River Lagoon and its tributaries in Brevard, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

They’ve found microplastics, blue-green algae toxins, metals and herbicides such as RoundUp, some that exceed federal recommended consumption levels.

What can be done?

European studies show most drugs and other emerging contaminants of concern can be removed during the sewage treatment process by applying ozone treatment.

The researchers call for Florida to upgrade and update sewage infrastructure to remove nutrients that fuel harmful algae blooms like red tide and to retrofit sewer plants with ozone. They also call for hooking up homes on septic systems to sewer plants that can handle the additional volumes.

Where you can learn more

Check the state Department of Health’s Florida Fish Consumption Advisories:

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