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Heart medications found in fish in West Fork, Tygart Valley rivers

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. (WDTV) – Heart medications have been found in fish in West Virginia rivers, according to West Virginia University researchers.

Fish collected from the West Fork and Tygart Valley rivers in Weston and Elkins, respectively, have been found with statins and beta blockers in their system, researchers said.

Beta blockers treat high blood pressure, and statins prevent the synthesis of cholesterol. Both medications are widely prescribed by physicians for heart disease and cardiovascular conditions and are working their way into the aquatic ecosystem.

Joseph Kingsbury, a doctoral student in natural resources science, and Kyle Hartman, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, published the initial, long-term exposure effects that revealed the presence of the medications in the fish.

Researchers said water treatment facilities aren’t effective at removing the medications and end up putting them back into the waterways. While the drugs do break down quickly, the popularity of these medications means facilities continuously deposit more.

Kingsbury approached the research as an emerging contaminant concern.

“With contaminants, the first place we always start is where they’re coming from,” he said. “Can we isolate those sources? Does it come from us? Not so much chemical plants, but from individual humans. We ingest the drugs, we partially digest them and then we excrete active variants.”

While humans take these medications to lower cholesterol, fish produce cholesterol to store lipids.

“For us, lipids are often considered bad,” Hartman said. “But lipids get fish through the winter and lean times. I was concerned we might be seeing eroding fish populations and not really have any idea why, because it’s not outright killing them.”

The researchers studied fish health in relation to these pharmaceutical concentrations both upstream and downstream from the discharge areas. Treated water is usually discharged from a straight pipe into the river, researchers said, and fish congregate near the warm water flow.

Like human livers, fish livers process toxins. Beta blockers and statins are processed in the liver and accumulate there. Kingsbury and Hartman suspected fish livers would show damage and found that, in some cases, the organs were discolored and the fish had parasites.

“None looked super healthy compared to traditional fish livers,” Kingsbury said. “And pharmaceuticals are very resilient. They’re meant to be saved, to go on our shelves and not break down over the years. We found quite a few sub-lethal effects.”

Kingsbury worked with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to collect fish from 21 different species in the two rivers. Kingsbury looked at organ size and organ weight as well as overall condition.

“The models showed us that certain drugs affect certain classifications of fish differently, in terms of overall health,” he said.

They were also concerned about the statins and their effect on fish eggs. As research continues, Kingsbury will need a larger sample size to determine these effects more precisely, especially those that affect the reproductive system — eggs and embryos.

Kingsbury’s primary concern is not so much instantaneous exposure but continuous, long-term multigenerational exposure.

“Pharmaceuticals are notorious for altering our DNA,” he said. “Fish are no different.”

As their research continues, they plan to look more closely at long-term exposure over multiple generations of fish. Moreover, Hartman and Kingsbury see the potential to steer physicians toward certain compounds and drugs that may be less harmful to the fish.

“We’d love to be able to help companies and those who make the decisions be more aware of what happens when they introduce these drugs to market,” Kingsbury said.

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