What Are Opioids Doing to People and the Environment?

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What Are Opioids Doing to People and the Environment?

By Charity Hupp

As humans, we find ways to solve our problems. One of those issues is the feeling of pain. It is not a sensation that is pleasant to feel so some people take man-made opioids to take it away. 

While this solves the problem of feeling pain momentarily, how is this man-made solution affecting other humans? How has the consumption of opioids been affecting the environment?

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a type of drug used for alleviating moderate to severe pain. Doctors recommend these medications following a surgery, injury, or for a health condition – such as cancer. Examples include heroin, which is illegal, fentanyl – a synthetic opioid, and pain relievers. Prescribed pain relievers may include hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone, and morphine, among many others.

The Opioid Epidemic

The first opioid came to America in 1775. By the 1860’s, opioids were being used to treat soldiers in the civil war for their pain. Those soldiers treated for their pain were already beginning to experience addiction. By the late 1800s, opioid use was on the rise, which resulted in an increased risk of addiction. This is because opioids were available over the counter for quick relief from pain or a cough.

Doctors began to see addiction as a major problem because opioids were starting to be used for recreational consumption. As a result, they put the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act into action in 1914. While this act seemed controversial at the time, it allowed opioids to only be available by a prescription. This act was set in motion in the first place to solve the recreational use of opioids, which often resulted in addiction and death.

More than a century later – opioids are still a recurring threat to society. Doctors recommend them to relieve pain as well as chronic pain disorders. Some examples of chronic pain disorders are back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. There is no evidence that these drugs resolve the pain issues of chronic pain over a long period of time. 

In fact, long term users often need to take more of the drug for it to work as it did when they first began taking it. This is because the human body builds up a certain tolerance to the drug over time, which leads to overconsumption. It also allows for the drug to be available in the home for others to experiment with. Teenagers, in particular, are prone to experiment with recreational drug use.

The Opioid Epidemic and Coronavirus Pandemic

The opioid epidemic has been on a fast rise for some time. There were 70,980 deaths due to overdose in the United States in 2019. 36,500 of those deaths were because of the use of synthetic opioids.  

The opioid epidemic has increased with the 2020 pandemic. In fact, the White House released this year that opioid deaths are already up 11.4  percent from 2019³.  This could very well be the result of encouraging people to isolate at home, as well as the stay at home orders. 

This caused those suffering from addiction to be unable to access treatment or needed distractions.

Opioid Pollution In the Environment

All things must go down the drain. This means opioids too. When we ingest them and when we dispose of them the wrong way. Where do all drains lead? Ponds, Rivers, streams, and finally the ocean. 

If opioids are going down the drain, what’s stopping these drugs from reaching ecosystems in the water? And what’s stopping these drugs from getting back into our water supply? 

The first course of action to make sure our water is clean and safe to drink is by means of water treatment plants. But, in regards to the opioid epidemic, water treatment plants are not required to check or record the presence of opioids in wastewater. So, how on earth do you verify what’s in your water?

Case Study – Opioids In The Water

Scientists decided to take this proposition into their own hands. While they had concern for the ongoing opioid crisis, they were also concerned with how this was affecting the environment. Afterall, everything we humans do affects our environment. Whether we realize it or not. 

They found traces of opioids downstream of wastewater plants. This suggests that the sewage plants are unable to clean these substances out of the water.

What are you ingesting?

In 2017, a study tested 18 mussels for traces of opioid drugs. The 18 mussels in the study had been in a body of water for 3 months, located in an urban area. Three of the mussels tested came back positive for oxycodone.

This begs the question about everything we ingest. If 3 out of 18 mussels with only 3 months in water came back with these results… What of the fish that have never left the water? How many animals have traces of opioid chemicals in them? Are they sick? Have we eaten a toxic fish with our dinner? 

From a glass of water from the faucet to lunch at a restaurant to dinner at your home – what are we actually putting into our bodies?

What Can You Do?

The first move in being a part of a great change is starting small. Change starts with you. You can take small steps to make this world a better place while also inspiring others to take the first step. 

Dispose of Medications Responsibly

It is important to remember your medications are for you, and you alone. What you have in your medicine cabinet could be harmful for someone else. Properly disposing of your medications also prevents others from forming destructive habits. 

The best method to dispose of medications no longer needed is by means of a drug take back program. Drug take back programs are available in every community. Check with your local law enforcement agency to find the location of your local drug take back program. Or, you can check with the DEA here.

You could also request information from your pharmacist.  A lot of communities have their own drug take back program. Your pharmacy is a good place to start to inquire about this.

If you don’t have access to one of these programs, you can dispose of your unused medications at home. For the exact steps to dispose of your medications, you can get more information here.

Educate Our Youth To Inspire Change

Our future is in the hands of our children and their children. What we have tried up until now is not working. This is why it is important to educate our youth to lead by example and learn from our mistakes. 

We can help them inspire change by educating them of the hazards of opioid addiction. How it affects family and friends, and how everything we do impacts our environment. This way, when it is time for us to leave this place, we know that future generations are more than prepared to take on this world, and keep it safe and clean.

Encourage your family, friends, and youth in your community to get involved. Take part in community cleanups. Attend training related to community cleanups. 

Donate to a non-profit organization. An organization that is already making waves with the cleanup process. Joining these organizations will help amplify your voice. Get involved, and encourage change starting first in your home. And finally, in your own community.

Seek Out Help for Opioid Addiction Recovery

Opioid addiction is a very sad medical condition that affects the lives of many. It is never too late for recovery. If you think you or someone you know has an opioid addiction:

1. Check in and reach out. Talk to family, friends, and a healthcare professional. 

2. Be helpful. Don’t be judgmental. This is a medical condition, not a character flaw. 

3. Acknowledge that it’s not easy. Be the cheerleader. Acknowledge wins, losses, setbacks, and improvements. Be the inspiration for them to keep on going!

4. Encourage social media support. When people are battling a condition such as opioid addiction, they feel alone. Be there for them, and suggest searching for support groups on social media. The help is out there waiting to help the people that need it. 

Author Bio: Charity Hupp is a freelance copywriter, reader, and researcher living in Ohio. In her spare time, she loves spending time outdoors and reconnecting with nature.