Pérez-Fuentetaja Testifies about Effects of Antidepressants on Fish
Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja testified before the Erie County Legislature about the impact of antidepressants on fish in the Niagara River. Her testimony is linked to her contribution to the study: “Selective uptake and bioaccumulation of antidepressants in fish from effluent-impacted Niagara River,” published in Environmental Science & Technology.
Pérez-Fuentetaja, professor of biology and research scientist with the Great Lakes Center, earned her Ph.D. in aquatic ecology and fisheries biology as a Fulbright Scholar at SUNY ESF. She was a research associate in Madrid and Toronto before serving as a research scientist and director of the limnological laboratory at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. After directing the environmental science program at SUNY Fredonia, she joined Buffalo State in 2006, where she focuses on the Great Lakes ecosystem.“The Great Lakes Center's field station is located on the shore of the Niagara River,” she said. “It’s ideal for my research.”
The recent study about antidepressant levels in fish is a collaboration with Diana Aga, chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo. Pérez-Fuentetaja recently led a major study on the emerald shiner, a small fish that is an important food source for other fish in the Niagara River. During that study, she and her team collected fish that Aga analyzed to detect exposure to pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.
“We thought we would find antibiotics,” said Pérez-Fuentetaja, “and we did. We also found painkillers, MRI contrast chemicals, caffeine, and more. But we were surprised to find higher levels of antidepressants than of anything else, at concentrations that could affect the behavior of fish.”
The study explains that many wastewater treatment plants discharge into the Niagara River, and everything that lives in the Niagara is affected by that discharge. “The legislature has been trying to address the problem of hospitals disposing of drugs in the sewer system,” said Pérez-Fuentetaja, “and I was asked to answer questions about how antidepressants affect fish behavior.”
She explained that research has shown that antidepressants in fish cause them to produce less cortisol and feel less stress. “Fish need a certain amount of cortisol,” she said. “Without enough stress hormones, fish may become relaxed about finding food, they may have a lower sex drive, and they may not try to evade predators. Ultimately, this behavior endangers the population. The fish are constantly exposed to the drugs in the water. There is no break and no limit.”
"I’m hopeful that our research will help protect the ecological jewel that is the Niagara River. It is so important to our community.”
A Worldwide Reaction
The study provoked a worldwide reaction. “My cousin in Spain read about it in El Mundo,” she said. “Our study results have been reported even in Chinese newspapers.” Erie County legislator Patrick Burke, who invited Pérez-Fuentetaja to address the legislature, told her he learned about the study from the BBC.
“Niagara Falls is well known internationally, and I think that’s one reason why the study received so much attention,” she said. “For us, this is our ecosystem and we drink this water. I’m hopeful that our research will help protect the ecological jewel that is the Niagara River. It is so important to our community.”