Opioids Found in Seafood

mussels contained opioids

Story at-a-glance -

  • When mussels in the Puget Sound 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
  • 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

By Dr. Mercola

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.4 The 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.

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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

Six More States Announce Lawsuits Against Purdue Pharma Over Opioids

Nevada, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee are the latest U.S. states to join the fight against Purdue Pharma, alleging the company used deceptive marketing practices to drive billions of dollars in drug sales. They join 16 other U.S. states and Puerto Rico, which have also filed suits. While Purdue and other drug companies continue to maintain their innocence, state and local governments are sending a clear message that they're expecting to hold Big Pharma accountable.

In Texas, the lawsuit alleges Purdue Pharma violated the state's Deceptive Trade Practices Act by selling opioids even though they knew of their potential dangers. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said at a news conference, "As Purdue got rich from sales of its opioids, Texans and others across the nation were swept up in a public health crisis that led to tens of thousands of deaths each year to due opioid overdoses."16 Claims against Purdue include that they:17

  • Misrepresented or failed to disclose opioids' risk of addiction
  • Falsely represented that there was no "ceiling dose," suggesting opioid dosages could be increased without risk
  • Falsely representing that signs of addiction in patients are signs of a need for a higher drug dose
  • Falsely representing that the abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin reduced the risk of addiction

A federal court also recently consolidated 433 lawsuits filed by U.S. cities and counties against Purdue Pharma and others, including Johnson & Johnson, Teva and Cardinal Health.18

Drug Company Payments Help Fuel the Epidemic

Despite the growing opioid crisis, many drug companies are still marketing the drugs to doctors and giving them perks like free meals, paid travel expenses, and money for speaking and consulting engagements. A recent NEJM study found that although doctors typically receive less than $1,000 a year in such perks, they may still influence opioid prescriptions.

In fact, physicians who received perks from drug companies increased their opioid prescription rates by an average of 9 percent in the year after the payment.19 "[W]hile we see a trend for a small drop in the number of opioid prescriptions now being written by doctors, that is not the case among physicians who receive an opioid marketing payment," Dr. Scott Hadland, the study's lead researcher of the Grayken Center for Addiction, Boston Medical Center, said.20 In contrast, their prescribing rates increased.

It's often assumed, including by doctors, that trivial "gifts" like meals don't influence physicians' prescribing habits, but the study found this is not the case. "[E]very meal led to an additional 0.7 percent increase. And many doctors were taken out more than once. So, it can add up," Hadland said. "So, patients need to be aware that doctors are receiving this marketing, and that when they're prescribed an opioid, a nonopioid option may be preferable."21

The researchers wrote in JAMA, "Amidst national efforts to curb the overprescribing of opioids, our findings suggest that manufacturers should consider a voluntary decrease or complete cessation of marketing to physicians. Federal and state governments should also consider legal limits on the number and amount of payments."22 All together, opioid-related payments to doctors from drug companies amounted to over $9 million in 2014.23

A separate analysis by CNN and Harvard researchers also revealed that, in 2014 and 2015, hundreds of doctors received in excess of $25,000 each from opioid manufacturers, and those who prescribed the most opioids received the largest payments.24

Using the online Open Payments Program from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, you can easily search to find out what (if any) payments your doctor has received from the pharmaceutical industry, along with the nature of the payments. In a previous study by Hadland and colleagues, researchers used Open Payments to reveal opioid-related payments to physicians between August 2013 and December 2015.

More than 375,000 nonresearch opioid-related payments were made to more than 68,000 physicians, totaling more than $46 million. This amounts to 1 in 12 U.S. physicians receiving money from drug companies producing prescription opioids.25 Family physicians received the most payments (close to 1 in 5 family medicine doctors were recipients26), which is "an indicator that opioids are being really heavily marketed for pain," Hadland told The Washington Post.27

Opioids Are Not Always the Best Option for Pain Relief

Prescription opioids are considered standard care for treating severe pain following surgery or injury or due to illnesses such as cancer, although they're now increasingly prescribed for many types of pain, including chronic back pain or pain from osteoarthritis. However, less risky opioid-free options may work just as well.28

If you suffer from chronic pain, there's a good chance you need to tweak your diet to eliminate grains, sugars and most processed foods while increasing your intake of healthy fats, including animal-based omega-3s. In addition, nondrug remedies and bodywork interventions can often help with pain relief without posing a risk of addiction or overdose death. You may want to consider one or more of the following for safe pain relief:

Medical cannabis

Medical marijuana has a long history as a natural analgesic and is now legal in 29 states. You can learn more about the laws in your state on medicalmarijuana.procon.org.29


Kratom (Mitragyna speciose) is a plant remedy that has become a popular opioid substitute. In August 2016, the DEA issued a notice saying it was planning to ban kratom, listing it as Schedule 1 controlled substance.

However, following massive outrage from kratom users who say opioids are their only alternative, the agency reversed its decision. Unfortunately, its legal status is still unstable, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on a crusade to eliminate kratom.

Kratom is safer than an opioid for someone in serious and chronic pain. However, it's important to recognize that it is a psychoactive substance and should be used with great care. There's very little research showing how to use it safely and effectively, and it may have a very different effect from one person to the next.

The other issue to address is that there are a number of different strains available with different effects. Also, while it may be useful for weaning people off opioids, kratom is in itself addictive. So, while it appears to be a far safer alternative to opioids, it's still a powerful and potentially addictive substance. So please, do your own research before trying it.

Low-Dose Naltrexone (LDN)

Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist, originally developed in the early 1960s for the treatment of opioid addiction. When taken at very low doses (LDN, available only by prescription), it triggers endorphin production, which can boost your immune function and ease pain.


A primary therapeutic compound identified in the spice turmeric, curcumin has been shown in more than 50 clinical studies to have potent anti-inflammatory activity. Curcumin is hard to absorb, so best results are achieved with preparations designed to improve absorption. It is very safe and you can take two to three every hour if you need to.


One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known, astaxanthin has very potent anti-inflammatory properties. Higher doses are typically required for pain relief, and you may need 8 milligrams or more per day to achieve results.


Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which have been prized for thousands of years. This is one of my personal favorites, as it worked well for many of my former rheumatoid arthritis patients.


This protein-digesting enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful. Keep in mind most of the bromelain is found within the core of the pineapple, so consider eating some of the pulpy core when you consume the fruit.

Cayenne cream

Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting your body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmit pain signals to your brain.

Cetyl myristoleate (CMO)

This oil, found in dairy butter and fish, acts as a joint lubricant and anti-inflammatory. I have used a topical preparation of CMO to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Evening primrose, black currant and borage oils

These oils contain the fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid, which is useful for treating arthritic pain.


This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea, or incorporated into fresh vegetable juice.