Apr 5, 2023 - News

Pharmaceutical drugs found in Tampa Bay redfish

Illustration of a redfish with an open mouth rising to the surface to get pills being spilled out of a prescription bottle like fish food.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The next snapper you reel in might be on drugs.

Driving the news: In a recent study from Florida International University, redfish across Florida were found contaminated with pharmaceuticals, and Tampa Bay saw some of the highest numbers of drugs detected.

  • Researchers found medications enter local waters through wastewater discharge, and sewage and septic tank leaks, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

Why it matters: The contaminated fish are a statewide concern, researchers say, underscoring Florida's urgent need to modernize its wastewater treatment systems β€” which cannot remove pharmaceuticals.

  • Some of the drugs found have been shown to alter fish health and behavior, which can affect survival rates and damage the ecosystem, FIU fish ecologist Jennifer Rehage tells Axios.
  • The contaminants don't only pose a threat to Florida's multibillion-dollar recreational and food fishing industry, but humans who consume such fish are exposed to these drugs as well.

Yes, but: The amount is less than 1% of the dose a doctor would prescribe, Rehage says, meaning you'd have to eat 48,000 servings of redfish to get a full dose.

  • "However, none of us asked to get exposed to a pharmaceutical with a fish sandwich," she said. "We don't know what being exposed to tiny tiny low levels of something for a long time does. This is all new."

How it works: Researchers sampled 113 redfish last summer in nine estuaries throughout the state, taking muscle and blood plasma samples and analyzing them for 94 pharmaceuticals.

  • They detected pharmaceuticals in 94% of the redfish sampled.

Details: Cardiovascular medications, opioid pain relievers and psychoactive medications were most commonly detected.

  • The antiarrhythmic medication flecainide and the opioid pain reliever tramadol were detected in more than half of the redfish, which were likely exposed to the drugs by inhalation via water and sediment or through prey, according to the study.

Flashback: Last year, FIU researchers found toxic "forever chemicals" in Tampa Bay oysters.

The intrigue: The study cites research in Europe showing most pharmaceuticals can be removed from wastewater with ozone treatment.

What's ahead: Tampa City Council voted unanimously last month to fund $77 million in wastewater improvements.

  • Tampa's Wastewater Department director Eric Weiss tells Axios the city's wastewater master plan considered a number of disinfection technologies, including ozone. But the department concluded that sticking with chlorine disinfection ensures the city continues to meet all environmental and public health regulations.
  • "We are closely monitoring contaminants of emerging concern and the latest science regarding them," Weiss said in a written statement.

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