Environment Food Health & Wellness

Consider PCB’s When Buying Fish

Written by Nicole Andre

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) consist of up to two-hundred-and-nine individual chlorinated chemicals. In the U.S, many commercial PCB mixtures are also known as Aroclor. They exist as oils or liquids that usually appear to be clear or a light yellow color. PCBs and are also odorless and can exist as vapors in the air. The chemicals were introduced to the US as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. These harmful substances can enter into the environment by air, water and soil during their manufacture, use, and disposal of industrial waste. They can also affect our environment by leaks or fires in products that contain these PCBs. Due to having no known natural sources and their harmful effects on health and the environment, they are no longer produced in the United States. However, these chemicals are unfortunately still found in the environment, especially in seafood.

Although these chemicals have been eliminated from the US years ago, they can still be released into the environment from hazardous wastes sites. The chemicals enter the air, water and soil by leaks from transportation, accidental spills, fires and so on. They remain in the environment because they do not break down readily. They can travel long distance in the air and remain stuck to organic particles and bottom sediments in the water, which then later become taken up by small organisms and fish in the water. This causes a huge problem because the PCBs in fish and marine mammals are found to be higher than levels that can be found in the water itself. Therefore, if a human or animal higher on the food chain consumes these fish, the levels of PCBs in their fatty tissue will increase dramatically.

PCBs in seafood have been a huge dilemma all over the world. The EPA has said that contaminated fish are a persistent source of PCBs in the human diet. Fish and other sea life absorb PCBs, which then become built up in their fatty tissues. Humans who eat these fish also build up PCBs in their fatty tissues. John Jane (2003) shared those results from tests of store-bought farmed salmon, showing seven of ten fish were so contaminated with PCBs that they raise risk for cancer. Farmed salmon is an industrial system that produces fish quickly and cheaply. The study proved that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB contaminated protein source in U.S grocery stores. It showed that farmed salmon had up to sixteen times the amount of PCBs found in other seafood. They believed that the salmon had been infected by the fishmeal they were fed, considering it was made up of fish oil that contained contaminated ground-up fish.

Furthermore, the study suggested that if these fish were caught in the wild, the Environmental Protection Agency would constrict consumption to no more than one meal per month. This is because the EPA sets high restrictions and guidance levels for PCBs in wild salmon. However, this will not happen because the EPA does not have the authority to regulate farm-raised fish, only wild caught, and the fish in this study were bought from fish farms. Farm-raised fish falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which has lax standards compared to the EPA. The EPA’s restrictions are almost 500 times more protective than the limits that the Food and Drug Administration apply to commercially sold fish.

The major problem is that the FDA has not updated their PCB health limits for commercial seafood since 1984. According to their out dated list, it is okay to eat salmon safely more than once a week. However, now that PCBs have been known to cause cancer and neurodevelopment risks in children, the FDA needs to reconsider reevaluating their limits. People have found salmon imported from Scotland that contained such high levels of PCBs that they would not recommend eating it more than six meals per year. Nowadays, salmon is a popular dish at home and in restaurants. It has been estimated that about 23 million people eat salmon more than once a month and the majority of it is farmed salmon.

In another study in Korea, 26 species of fish were discovered to be contaminated with PCBs.  The main contributors were the mackerel, tuna, and hairtail. Approximately 4,300 tons of PCBs were used in Korea up until the 1990’s. These chemicals have also been banned from Korea just like the U.S and are also still present in coastal environments, contaminating fish and humans. This study suggested that infants less than 2 years old were the most effected. Seafood was then proven to be the major dietary source of PCB carriers.

PCB’s in seafood has been a health issue for many years. Concerns of ingesting many varieties of seafood in restaurants are a major concern.  Some restaurants are already doing something about their seafood in order to serve the best, healthiest fish. Eco-Fish, an environmentally friendly company provides the option for restaurants to purchase healthy toxin free seafood to serve. They also work to help support sustainable fisheries including wild and agricultural and work to reverse the decline of marine bio-diversity by encouraging a shift in consumer demand from over-exploited fisheries. Eco-Fish also works to raise awareness of the threats to the world’s oceans and humans by providing a source of environmentally safe seafood. Eco-Fish claims that, “Seafood Safe is a testing program for mercury and PCBs in seafood, two of the most prevalent contaminants found in seafood today. The label helps inform consumers of how many meals they can consume per month, without exposing themselves to dangerous levels of these contaminants. The recommendation is derived from EPA’s Guidance for Assessing Chemical Contaminant Data for Use in Fish Advisories. To protect those adults that are at highest risk, women of childbearing age, the Seafood Safe label reflects safe consumption levels for this sub-population.” As you can see, Eco-Fish has a method of putting a label on their seafood that tells the consumer what the safe consumption level is of that particular seafood. More seafood companies should use this same method.

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Already restaurants have been choosing Eco-Fish as their supplier for their seafood. Aroma Thyme Bistro located in Ellenville, NY has been a consumer of Eco-Fish’s seafood for years which is one reason why the restaurant is very well off and popular. The seafood they provide is tested for contaminants and they claim that Eco-Fish is the only company that can make these assertions. You may wonder why more restaurants aren’t doing the same thing Aroma Thyme Bistro is. Well, it is very simple. The cost to test seafood is over sixteen hundred dollars just for one test. Although it is very expensive, more chefs and consumers must become more educated in the seafood they are consuming and serving to their customers.

In conclusion, seafood consumption is the main contributor to total dietary intakes of PCBs because they are a major source of proteins and lipids. Studies show that children of mothers who ate fish with large amounts of PCBs had smaller head size, reduced visual recognition and delayed muscle development. A mother’s exposure to PCBs and other chemicals effected child’s birth weight, short-term memory, and learning. Older adults typically 50 and over who ate fish containing PCBs and other contaminants had lower scores on several measures of memory and learning. Studies also show that consumption of PCBs leads to interference of neurodevelopment.

In order to stay healthy one must limit their exposure to PCBs by trimming the fat and skin off of fish prior to cooking or eating. Additionally, Eco-Fish’s guide to testing seafood should be followed when selecting seafood. For good quality the qualities to look for are firm and elastic flesh, scales that are bright and tightly adhered to skin, the belly cavity should have no blood and clean. There should be a nice ocean fresh odor similar to seaweed, clear and bright eyes, and bright red gills free of slime. The poor quality fish would consist of soft flesh separating from the bones, dull scales with many missing, cuts and traces of blood in the belly cavity, putrid ammonia smell, dull cloudy sunken eyes, and brown gills with yellow mucus. These are aspects that should be of concern when examining seafood. If any of these characteristics in the poor quality list are present, then the fish or seafood should not be eaten. An example of a highly toxic fish is bluefin tuna, which should be avoided at all times. Rainbow trout, sole, and rockfish should not be eaten more than two or three times per month and farmed salmon should not be eaten more than once a month.


Journal Article:

Human in South Korea, 2005–2007 47.8 (2009): 1819-825. Science Direct. Elsevier Ltd, 4 May 2009. Web. 12 Oct. 2009. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6….>.Health Risk of Polychlorinated Biphenyl’s Resulting from Seafood Consumption


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2000. Toxicological Profile for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Web. 12 Oct. 2009. <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts17.html>

“PCBs in Farmed Salmon | Environmental Working Group.” EWG Home | Environmental Working Group. Environmental Working Group, July 2003. Web. 12 Oct. 2009. <http://www.ewg.org/reports/farmedpcbs>.

Seafood Safe. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <http://www.seafoodsafe.com/partners/learn.htm>.

Sustainable seafood methods. Sunset Publishing Corporation. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <http://www.sunset.com/food-wine/flavors-of-the-west/mercury-pcbs-fish-seafood-00400000053189/>.

About the author

Nicole Andre

Nicole is a Registered Nurse and a graduate of University of Vermont. Her science background makes her a top consultant and writer for health related articles.