Cocaine and ketamine found within a number of river wildlife creatures

1 May 2019

Image: © Hamish/

Researchers in the UK have found traces of cocaine, prescription drugs and pesticides within a wide array of river wildlife samples.

While pollution in major waterways might not come as a surprise given the amount of waste released into the wild, a new study undertaken by scientists from King’s College London and the University of Suffolk has found something truly surprising.

In a paper published to Environmental International, the researchers described finding a wide array of consumer drugs and recreational drugs – including cocaine and ketamine – in UK river wildlife such as the freshwater shrimp Gammarus pulex.

Consumer products, medicines and drugs are just some of the products that can end up in rivers after use, comprising thousands of different chemicals that may cause wildlife harm. For this study, the researchers collected samples from five catchment areas and 15 different sites across the county of Suffolk.

The researchers said they were surprised to find that cocaine was found in all samples tested, and other illicit drugs such as ketamine, pesticides and pharmaceuticals were also widespread in the shrimp that were collected.

Speaking of the findings, lead author of the study, Dr Thomas Miller from King’s College London, said: “Although concentrations were low, we were able to identify compounds that might be of concern to the environment and, crucially, which might pose a risk to wildlife.

“As part of our ongoing work, we found that the most frequently detected compounds were illicit drugs, including cocaine and ketamine, and a banned pesticide, fenuron. Although for many of these, the potential for any effect is likely to be low.”

Whether the discovery of cocaine and other substances in river wildlife is just a Suffolk issue or one across the UK and internationally remains to be seen, the researchers added.

Miller’s colleague, Dr Leon Barron, reiterated that it was unusual for any traces of recreational drugs to be found in the region. “Such regular occurrence of illicit drugs in wildlife was surprising,” he said. “We might expect to see these in urban areas such as London, but not in smaller and more rural catchments.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic