Opioids, which kill an average of 115 Americans daily,1 have found their way into waterways where they’re now coursing through filter feeders, including mussels, and possibly other sea life as well. Mussels serve as useful pollution barometers because they absorb environmental pollutants as a matter of course. Researchers with the Puget Sound Mussel Monitoring Program actually move uncontaminated mussels to various locations in Washington’s Puget Sound every two years in order to study pollution levels.
When the mussels were most recently tested, those at three out of 18 locations tested positive for the opioid oxycodone. All of the areas where the mussels contained opioids were highly urbanized, suggesting the drugs may be excreted in toilet water, ending up in wastewater and then finding their way out into the ocean. Pharmaceuticals, including antidepressants, chemotherapy and diabetes drugs, have long been detected in marine life, but the study represents the first time opioids were detected in the Puget Sound area.2
If there were an upside to the finding, it’s that mussels probably don’t metabolize oxycodone, and thus probably aren’t affected by the trace amounts of drugs detected.
However, other marine life, including fish, most likely will be. “Lab studies show that zebrafish will learn to dose themselves with opioids,3 and scientists say salmon and other Puget Sound fish might have a similar response,” according to the Puget Sound Institute.4The appearance of the drugs in waterways is also a sign of just how pervasive opioid use has become.
1 in 5 Know an Opioid Addict; Organ Donations Surging
In the U.S., 63,600 people died from a drug overdose in 2016, 66 percent of which involved an opioid. Overdose deaths have been on the rise since the 1990s, with those involving prescription opioids increasing sharply since 1999.5
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, with the deaths being driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl.6 Further, the rate of deadly overdoses from synthetic opioids rose an average of 88 percent a year since 2013 and has gotten so bad that the opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in 2017.7
In a study on economic well-being, the Federal Reserve even started assessing opioid addiction to determine its role. About 1 in 5 adults was found to personally know someone who has been addicted to opioids, and this rose to 1 in 4 among white adults. “Exposure to opioid addiction was much more common among whites — at all education levels — than minorities,” the report noted.8
In addition, those exposed to opioid addiction assessed economic conditions somewhat less favorably than those who were not exposed. The realities of the opioid crisis are hitting close to home for many Americans, with the uptick in related death rates even making a noticeable rise in organ donation due to drug abuse.
Whereas only 1 percent of adult organ donations were due to drug overdoses prior to the start of the opioid crisis, research published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) revealed that by 2016 this had risen to 14 percent.9 “This shift accounted for much of the increase in organ transplantation activity over the past five years in the United States,” the researchers noted, adding that the organs appear to be as safe for recipients as organ donations from donors who died from other causes.
Lawyer Who Beat Tobacco Going After Pharma
Attorney Mike Moore, Mississippi’s former attorney general, is perhaps most well-known for a lawsuit he filed against 13 tobacco companies, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement spanning 50 states. He’s now going after Big Pharma, who he believes is responsible for creating the U.S. opioid epidemic and, to date, he’s already enlisted attorneys general from 23 states to take part.
Already 10 states have sued pharmaceutical companies, often Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures OxyContin. About 80 percent of heroin drug addicts report starting out on painkillers such as OxyContin.10 Purdue Pharma was instrumental in driving sales of OxyContin up from $48 million in 1996 to $1.5 billion in 2002.11 They also released a promotional video in 1998 claiming that the addiction rate is much less than 1 percent. Moore said:12
"When you train your workforce — thousands of salespeople — to go out and tell doctors that there's less than a 1 percent chance of addiction if you take this drug, and you know that there's no study that you've done, and no reliable study that anybody else has ever done that says that, then of course you're telling a lie.”
In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges of misbranding "with intent to defraud and mislead the public" and paid $634 million in fines, which did little to dissuade them from continuing to profit off the deadly drugs. A potential part of the problem is the fact that no specific individuals have ever been charged. The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, made it onto Forbes' Top 20 billionaires list in 201513 — in large part due to the burgeoning sales of OxyContin.
Yet, none of the members of the Sackler family was ever charged with any kind of misdeed, and owners and corporate leaders of other drug companies have also walked away scot-free.
Moore, however, who is representing the states of Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi against Purdue Pharma, stated he has discovered evidence connecting the Sackler family "directly, and personally, to corporate misdeeds" committed in the '90s and 2000s, and says he's "looking really hard" at the possibility of suing certain Sackler family members personally.14 He and others also want Purdue's owners to fund opioid addiction treatment.15