Protecting the environment from psychoactive drugs: Problems for regulators illustrated by the possible effects of tramadol on fish behaviour


• Fish were exposed to the psychoactive drugs tramadol and fluoxetine.
• Alteration of fish behaviour was assessed in a novel tank diving test.
• The results were not easy to interpret with confidence.
• Ecotoxicological experts reached different conclusions based on the same results.
• Determining whether or not psychoactive drugs alter the behaviour of fish is difficult.


There is concern that psychoactive drugs present in the aquatic environment could affect the behaviour of fish, and other organisms, adversely. There is considerable experimental support for this concern, although the literature is not consistent. To investigate why, fish were exposed to three concentrations of the synthetic opiate tramadol for 23–24 days, and their anxiolytic behaviour in a novel tank diving test was assessed both before and after exposure. The results were difficult to interpret. The positive control drug, the anti-depressant fluoxetine, produced the expected results: exposed fish explored the novel tank more, and swam more slowly while doing so. An initial statistical analysis of the results provided relatively weak support for the conclusion that both the low and high concentrations of tramadol affected fish behaviour, but no evidence that the intermediate concentration did. To gain further insight, UK and Japanese experts in ecotoxicology were asked for their independent opinions on the data for tramadol. These were highly valuable. For example, about half the experts replied that a low concentration of a chemical can cause effects that higher concentrations do not, although a similar number did not believe this was possible. Based both on the inconclusive effects of tramadol on the behaviour of the fish and the very varied opinions of experts on the correct interpretation of those inconclusive data, it is obvious that more research on the behavioural effects of tramadol, and probably all other psychoactive drugs, on aquatic organisms is required before any meaningful risk assessments can be conducted. The relevance of these findings may apply much more widely than just the environmental risk assessment of psychoactive drugs. They suggest that much more rigorous training of research scientists and regulators is probably required if consensus decisions are to be reached that adequately protect the environment from chemicals.


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