Human Drugs Are Polluting the Water—And Animals Are Swimming in It

Esther Aarts

What impels small salmon, called smolts, out of their nursery brooks to the ocean? Across thousands of miles, the fish transmogrify from fingerlings into trollish adults—hook-jawed, toothy, and, in the case of many males, humpbacked. Though reversing the journey does not rescind their metamorphosis, the big fish famously return, waggling against currents, vaulting over dams, and pushing together, like a blade, toward the very gravel beds where, years earlier, they hatched.

The salmon “pulse,” as some people describe this recurrent migration, is a marvel of animal tenacity. But it matters for reasons beyond natural spectacle. The fish’s life cycle draws nutrients from forested areas to the ocean and then back upstream, onto floodplains, into woodlands, and higher still, to alpine lakes. En route, salmon bodies feed wolves, foxes, eagles, otters, flies, and others. Grizzlies and black bears lug the fish into the underwood, plucking the richest organs and leaving the carcasses. Spruce forests in the Pacific Northwest have been fertilized by salmon: Tree rings record years of abundant fish as well as thinner seasons. Nearly a quarter of the nitrogen available to a river’s encircling woodland may have been derived from dropped or stranded salmon.

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Those fish that manage to get back to their former cradle spawn; soon after, most make it their graveyard. Their decomposing bodies nourish water grasses and algae, which form a camouflaging habitat for future hatchlings until they themselves turn into smolts and, like their forebears, depart.

Today, another kind of migration—a pernicious, microscopic one that folds together the private lives of humans with those of riverine creatures—risks disrupting this cycle, even as it offers (a meager silver lining) insight into fish mentality and animal migration. Pharmaceuticals are emitted from our bodies, homes, and factories, entering waterways and accumulating in fish, bugs, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, and warm-blooded animals. Areas around drug-manufacturing plants are hot spots for this kind of pollution. So too are watercourses near hospitals and aging sewage infrastructure. But medicinal compounds have also been detected in remote environments, imbuing surface waters even in Antarctica.

Waterways can contain traces of many drugs—among them antifungals, antimicrobials, and antibacterials, as well as ones for pain, fertility, mood, sleeplessness, and neurodegenerative diseases. If current trends persist, scientists estimate, the volume of pharmaceuticals diffusing into fresh water could increase by two-thirds by 2050. Recent modeling shows that a platypus living in a contaminated stream in Melbourne is already likely to ingest more than half a recommended adult dose of antidepressants every day.

Tracking medicines’ impact in the wild is difficult, but toxicologists believe their influences on fauna can occur at low concentrations—and may be distinct from their effects on humans. Already a variety of symptoms has been observed in lab studies. Amphetamines change the timing of aquatic insect development. Antidepressants impede cuttlefish’s learning and memory, and cause marine and freshwater snails to peel off rocks. Drugs that affect serotonin levels in humans cause shore crabs to exhibit “risky behavior,” and female starlings to become less attractive to males (who in turn sing less). Dosed with Prozac, shrimp are more likely to swim toward a light source—a dangerous tendency, given that many predators hunt in sunlit zones.

And Atlantic salmon smolts exposed to benzodiazepines—medications, such as Valium and Xanax, that are frequently used to treat anxiety—migrate nearly twice as quickly as their unmedicated counterparts. Recklessly so, for the juvenile fish are likely to arrive at the sea in an underdeveloped state and before seasonal conditions are favorable. The smolts do not usually exhibit such gusto: In fact, they are frequently observed traveling tail-first, as if reluctant. It would seem, then, that they have a cognitive and perhaps emotional switch that, when flipped, prompts them to strike out for sea. This complicates the common understanding of migration, which holds that animals are puppetted by seasonal cues and physical readiness (here, the adaptation of scales and gills to briny water). Pharmaceutical pollution reveals that a psychobiological release may also be required—to set off, the smolts must first surmount their own feelings of stress.

We are by now accustomed to the idea that humans affect the mental health of captive animals. That we may also, inadvertently, be changing the mental health of wildlife is an unhappy realization, even if it expands what is understood of animals’ emotional worlds. As salmon pervade their environment, sustaining forests, so their environment enters into them, bringing with it evidence of our own distant inner lives.

This article appears in the May 2019 print edition with the headline “Salmon on Psychotropics.”