A small eels pokes its head out from under a rock.

Previous research has shown how cocaine causes eels to become hyperactive ©Shutterstock / Martin Pelanek

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Drugs from Glastonbury festival-goers could be impacting endangered eels

Drugs from the urine of festival goers is leaching into the river running through the farm where Glastonbury music festival is held.  

The levels of MDMA and cocaine found in the river immediately after the festival were so high there are worries that they could be having an impact on the Critically Endangered European eel which lives downstream.

The drug habits of partying festival-goers might be having a knock-on effect for one of the UK's most threatened species.  

As people take drugs and urinate during Glastonbury Festival outside of designated toilets, the chemicals have been found to leach into the water table and the river flowing through the site.

Dan Aberg, a researcher at Bangor University's School of Natural Sciences and author of the new study, says, 'Illicit drug contamination from public urination happens at every music festival. The level of release is unknown, but festivals undoubtedly are an annual source of illicit drug release.

'Unfortunately, Glastonbury Festival's close proximity to a river results in any drugs released by festival attendees having little time to degrade in the soil before entering the fragile freshwater ecosystem.'

The researchers measured the level of drugs in the river before, during and after Glastonbury Festival held in 2019. The results are published in the journal Environmental Research.

They found that immediately following the event, MDMA levels were 104 times higher downstream of the site than they were upstream. When it came to cocaine, these levels were 40 times higher downstream, at a concentration known to have an impact on the lifecycle of European eels.

A spokesperson for Glastonbury Festival highlights that the festival already has a campaign in place, called Don't Pee on the Land, to try and prevent people from urinating outside of the toilets.

'We have a thorough and successful waterways sampling regime in place during each festival, as agreed with the Environment Agency,' the spokesperson told the Guardian. 'There were no concerns raised by the Environment Agency following Glastonbury 2019.'

Baby eels in a white bucket.

The illegal trade in baby eels, known as glass eels, is the largest wildlife crime in Europe ©Shutterstock / Joyce Godsey

Hyperactive eels

The European eel was once common in most rivers across the UK. But over the last few decades their numbers have tumbled, declining by over 95%.

The eel's migratory lifecycle makes them particularly vulnerable. While it is still not even fully known how the eels manage their epic journey, adults will leave rivers from across Europe and travel to the Sargasso Sea off the eastern coast of the USA.

Here, they mate and lay their eggs before dying. The eggs then hatch, and the young eels will navigate their way all the way back across the Atlantic, despite never having done this trip before. It is at this point that they are most at risk.

Historically, huge numbers of young glass eels were harvested as they tried to make their way up rivers. Today, while the legal trade is now much smaller and regulated, the illegal trade is in fact the largest wildlife crime in Europe, as million of baby eels are caught and smuggled to Asia.

For those that do survive the return journey, many now find rivers blocked by dams and weirs. It seems that, in some populations at least, European eels are now also having to deal with being bathed in illegal drugs which is thought to impact this extraordinary lifecycle.

Previous studies have found that small levels of cocaine in waterways can cause European eels in a laboratory setting to become hyperactive. There was also evidence that it can lead to muscle wastage, something which could have a significant effect on their epic journey as adults.

This new study found that following Glastonbury Festival, the levels of cocaine detected in the water downstream was at levels high enough to potentially cause a similar effect for the native fish.   

Dr Christian Dunn, the lead author of the paper, says, 'Our main concern is the environmental impact. This study identifies that drugs are being released at levels high enough to disrupt the lifecycle of the European eel, potentially derailing conservation efforts to protect this endangered species.

'Education is essential for environmental issues, just as people have been made aware of the problems of plastic pollution, and Glastonbury have made great efforts to become plastic-free. We also need to raise awareness around drug and pharmaceutical waste – they are hidden yet potentially devastating pollutants.'

The researchers recommend creating reedbeds as a natural filtration system, in which the wetlands help to treat any potential wastewater and contaminants leaching from the festival.