Here’s how festival drugs could be posing a threat to rare eels

Levels of common festival drugs like MDMA and cocaine could be threatening the lives of rare eels due to pee seeping into rivers, study finds.

Here’s how festival drugs could be posing a threat to rare eels
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Here’s how festival drugs could be posing a threat to rare eels

A recent study has shown that a rare species of eel, known as the European eel, is facing threats from MDMA and cocaine. But, before you let your imagination run wild with images of eels with blocked noses and rolled-up dollar bills, the European eel isn’t grappling with substance abuse problems. According to a study conducted by Wales’ Bangor University, the damage is actually due to drug-laced pee being washed into rivers following events like music festivals.

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Drug-laced urine could be harming local eel populations

The study, reported in the journal Environmental Research, saw researchers collect water samples from the Whitelake River in Somerset, both upstream and downstream, in the weeks before, during and following 2019’s Glastonbury festival.

The samples detected levels of MDMA and cocaine in the river, which peaked the weekend after the festival, downstream of the Whitelake site.

While festival-goers are urged to use the on-site toilets provided by festivals like Glastonbury, many people (understandably) choose to forego the long lines and unhygienic portaloos that have seen upwards of 1,000 backsides in favour of going on the grass ‘el natural’ style.

However, some drugs and their metabolites are also excreted in urine, and researchers believe this drug-laced pee may be making its way into the ground and downstream of the festival site by way of run-off, contaminating the Whitelake River.

How does MDMA and cocaine affect eels?

While people may have a jolly good time when ingesting common party drugs, MDMA and cocaine both have very adverse effects on eels.

According to the paper, MDMA was found in the samples at ‘environmentally damaging levels.’ Meanwhile, previous studies that exposed European eels to doses of cocaine found that the drug can result in muscle damage and negatively impact the creature’s lifestyle (which it can also do for people).

Dan Aberg, from the Wolfson Carbon Capture Lab at Bangor University and the study’s author explained to IFLScience:

A study from a few years ago exposed European eels to concentrations of cocaine. The eels experienced disruption of their endocrine system, which caused delayed sexual maturation. Many eels spent longer in their glass eel phase than they would regularly; this disrupted their breeding rates.

Aberg continued: ‘The concentrations of cocaine we found the weekend of the festival were above the concentrations used in the study, suggesting that cocaine could be damaging the local eel population.’

According to Aberg, MDMA could also affect eels by contaminating Daphnia, a small yet vital planktonic crustacean further down the food chain.

The assessment found that MDMA concentrations were high enough to cause a 50 percent inhibition of function in Daphnia. The term 50 percent inhibition of a function can refer to anything from growth rate to respiration rate. It basically means that the Daphnia will be working at 50 percent capacity.

But it’s not just Glastonbury that should be subject to scrutiny. Researchers involved believe that while the study focused on the huge UK festival, it represents a wider festival-based drug-pollution problem.

Aberg explained: ‘Glastonbury is one of, if not the most environmentally friendly festivals in the world. Discovery of these dangerous concentrations is an indicator of how widespread this pollution could be.’

Many other festivals, both greenfield and city-based, have worse toilet facilities and don’t educate their attendees on respecting the land. Other festivals across the UK undoubtedly are sources of illicit drug pollution and could potentially be releasing higher quantities.
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