Environmental contamination with an antidepressant was behind minute traces of the drug being found in an endurance horse at a Canadian ride.
The FEI Tribunal found that the United States-registered rider Nicki Meuten bore no fault or negligence for the drug being in her horse’s system during a CSI3* 160km ride at Coates Creek, Canada, on July 2 last year.
Meuten competed on FYF Dutch in the race.
Her mount was selected for drug testing and FYF Dutch was positive for O-Desmethyl Venlafaxine, an anti-depressant used for treating depression and anxiety. It is classified as a banned substance under the FEI’s anti-doping rules.
Meuten was told of the positive test on October 16 last year, with provisional suspensions imposed on the horse and rider.
On May 18 this year, a preliminary hearing panel decided to lift Meuten’s suspension after considering written submissions and documents from her which indicated inadvertent environmental contamination as the likely source.
The FEI had first checked with an external expert, Professor Stuart Paine, who found that Meuten’s explanations were plausible for the positive drug finding.
Meuten and the FEI went on to reach a formal written agreement around the circumstances of the failed drug test.
The FEI accepted that environmental contamination at the site of the ride was behind the failed drug test and that Meuten was not at fault.
The circumstances were exceptional, the FEI said, and it agreed no suspension was warranted. It also accepted that no fine should be imposed.
The FEI Tribunal, comprising Chris Hodson, Cesar Torrente and Constance Popineau, ratified the agreement.
Meuten said she was a working veterinarian who owned a small animal hospital. She said she would not do anything to risk her veterinary or competition reputation.
Her husband was a retired professor of veterinary pathology who had been teaching for 30 years and would not tolerate cheating.
Neither she, nor her husband, had ever taken the drug in question, or given it to the horse.
She and her husband did not have any entourage, and crewed for each other.
Meuten said the most likely source of the drug was from environmental contamination by sludge and effluent deposited and spread at the event site.
Sludge was discharged and spread on fields used for the endurance ride at Coates Creek.
Environmental contamination with O-Desmethyl Venlafaxine was now a documented common occurrence.
It is present in effluent from treatment plants in Ontario, Canada. It was in drinking water and streams in the US and other countries.
Given the tiny amount present in the urine of the horse, it was abundantly clear that contamination was the most likely scenario for explaining how the drug entered the horse’s system. It was highly unlikely that there was any other reasonable explanation, she submitted.
One part of the course had septic pools of water off to the side, with a warning sign erected. The grass around the pools was lush and tall. While she did not allow the horse to graze there, there were other areas with lush grass next to the trail where the horse had eaten multiple times.
An endurance horse on a 160km ride needed to eat and drink all day, and grass was the best food for them.
Meuten said she and her husband always let their endurance horses eat grass and drink from “natural water” or supplied water on the trail.
Both Meuten and her husband had suspended themselves and all their horses since being notified of the positive result, which had prevented them from competing for a US team slot for WEG 2018.
Meuten said she and her husband did not want to be labelled as abusers or cheaters. They were 100% for horse welfare and totally against drug and physical abuse.
An expert statement by Dr Clara Fenger said it was her view that inadvertent environmental exposure was probably behind the failed drug test.
There was, she said, no evidence that the drug had any effect on athletic performance in any species at any blood level.
The drug is a human anti-depressant, sufficiently common to be an almost ubiquitous contaminant of wastewater and waterways associated with humans.
“As venlafaxine has become a more commonly prescribed antidepressant, low concentrations of venlafaxine in urine samples have been identified in post-competition samples in jurisdictions across the globe with increasing frequency.
“Such identifications are consistent with random exposure of competition horses to humans that require human prescription medications.
“This case,” she continued, “exemplifies the problems associated with the failure of regulatory agencies to account for inadvertent environmental exposure as a source of pharmacologically insignificant concentrations of substances in post-competition samples at the same time that the technology available in testing laboratories permit the identification of ever-lower concentrations of these substances.”
Meuten also provided several scientific studies to support her case.
The ride coordinator, Robert Gielen, confirmed that the trail passed through “at least one field where human sludge … is dumped heavily.”
Furthermore, he confirmed that the site of the ride camp was located at a Girl Guide camp, which had a huge septic field where many of the horses involved had grazed.
The FEI accepted that environmental contamination of the water or grass that the horse ingested at the event site was the most likely source of the O-Desmethyl Venlafaxine.
It accepted that Meuten could not reasonably have foreseen the risk. In its opinion, she bore no fault or negligence for the failed drugs test. No competition ban would apply to Meuten, and the positive drug test would not be considered a prior violation. No fine would be imposed, and each party would bear their own legal costs.
The panel, in its ruling, said: “The tribunal finds that exceptional circumstances exist in the present case. Therefore, the tribunal does not object to or disapprove the terms of the agreement.”
It accepted it as a bona fide settlement of the case.