Eye Health

Fish oil supplements and PCBs. Should you worry? Part 1

written by Vin Kutty

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fish oil PCB

fish oil supplement and PCBs

Are you a skydiver who constantly worries about getting hit by lighting?

If you are, then you will relate to the recent lawsuit in California about PCBs in fish oil supplements.

People are scared.  Because TV said the words ‘lawsuit’, ‘fish oil pills’, and ‘PCBs’.

Image: Piotr Dorabiala

The lawsuit DOES NOT claim that all fish oil supplements are unsafe.  Or that fish oil pills contain higher-than-approved levels of PCBs.  They don’t.

What the law says…

California’s super-strict Prop 65 sets PCB standards for two things:

  1. Carcinogenic activity of PCBs
  2. Reproductive toxicity of PCBs

(Yes, those are scary words to read.)

There is an established level for carcinogenic activity.  But there is no level established for reproductive toxicity.

What the lawyers are saying…

What the lawsuit claims is that in the absence of a reproductive toxicity level, if you have any detectable level of PCBs in a fish oil supplement, then the product should carry a warning on the label.

That’s the main ‘beef’ of the lawsuit.

What the scientists are saying…

The State of California is reviewing a laundry list of chemicals to see how big the risks of each are.

There are lots of way to set reproductive toxicity limits.  And there are lots of chemicals that can harm a fetus.

But the scientists in California have decided that setting a reproductive toxicity level for PCB is an extremely low priority.  In other words, there are more dangerous chemicals that they (and we) need to be concerned with.

It’s like worrying about a large earthquake when you’re driving 100 miles per hour on a busy freeway.   It’s not the earthquake that’ll get you.

Also, the levels of PCBs that were found in the products mentioned in the lawsuit are a LOT LESS than what is found in regular foods in your grocery store.

The FDA did a survey of common foods.  Most commonly consumed foods have levels of PCBs that are dozens or hundreds of times higher than what is found in fish oil.

So this is not an issue of safety.

Frost & Sullivan released a report recently that showed that 93% of all fish oil comes from anchovy and sardines.  The rest from menhaden, whiting, pollock and hoki. These are small, short-lived fish that eat algae.   They are not alive long enough to accumulate environmental toxins.

But the lawsuit did not test these fish oils.  They went for cod liver oil.  Yup.  Your grandma’s fish oil.

Cod is a big fish.  It lives a long time and picks up a lot of toxins along the way.  Same for Salmon and Tuna.

Remember, cod liver oil is not the same as fish oil found in fish oil supplements.

In part 2, we will try to put things in context by comparing the amount of PCB in fish oil pills versus foods that we all regularly purchase and consume.

Read Part 2 here.

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