Organic Consumers Association

Farmed Salmon Contain Alarming Amounts of PCBs

July 30, 2003

What's safe PCB level in salmon? Study renews debate

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

What's a salmon lover to do?

In a blast of bad publicity for farmed-raised salmon, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group has sampled 10 fillets for chemical traces of PCBs and found the results disturbing enough to recommend consumers eat no more than one 8-ounce serving a month.

The group's report, released yesterday, comes at a time when salmon consumption in the United States has been on the rise, with fresh farm-raised fillets now in year-round supply and far outselling wild salmon..

The fish-farm industry's growth "has been rapid and unexpected but is a having a real public-health consequence," said Res Houlihan, the group's vice president.

But the recommendations were challenged by both the industry and some federal officials, who say it was based on a narrow study that overstates risks to consumers.

Federal Food and Drug Administration officials who are charged with watchdogging the food supply say that the Environmental Working Group's test results do not yield levels high enough to justify any new restrictions. Indeed, they are far below the agency's current thresholds.

"It is important to know that at this point the FDA advice is that the consumer should not alter their consumption of salmon," said Terry Troxell, an FDA official. "Fish is an excellent source of protein."

Complicating matters further, the Environmental Working Group suggests consumers buy wild salmon rather than farm-raised fish. But separate Washington state studies during the past decade have found higher levels of PCBs in wild chinook caught in Puget Sound than those found in most of the farm-raised fish sampled by the environmental group.

The sampled salmon were purchased at grocery stories in Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. None of them was known to have been raised in Washington waters.

Salmon now under review

The FDA now is reviewing PCB levels in salmon as part of a broader effort to redefine acceptable risk in a chemical-laden world.

Currently, the agency tests to ensure that PCBs do not exceed 2,000 parts per billion in salmon, which is far above the average 27 parts per billion detected in the 10 samples tested by the environmental group.

However, another federal agency ‹ the Environmental Protection Agency ‹ assesses the risk differently. It recommends restricting consumption of fish with much lower PCB levels than the standards set by the FDA. Those lower guidelines were cited by the study's authors yesterday.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, are long-lived chemical compounds, once used in industrial insulators. PCBs have been linked to increased risks of cancer and fetal-development problems, and their use was banned by Congress in 1976.

FDA officials say that human consumption of PCBs has dramatically declined, by roughly 90 percent, in the past 30 years. But the chemicals still can be found in everything from catfish to polar bears to the human body.

Farmed salmon ‹ reared in floating net pens ‹ have come under increased scrutiny because their diet includes fish feed that in some instances has been found to have significant levels of PCBs. Salmon farms are located in the coastal waters of Washington state, Maine, British Columbia, Chile and northern Europe.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association called the Environmental Working Group report "seriously flawed," and misleading to consumers. Industry officials say they have worked hard to produce cleaner feed and that the PCB levels documented in the report are safe levels.

"Salmon farmers are concerned about meeting food standards. That's the basis of our operations," said Alex Trent, acting executive director of Salmon of Americas, an advocacy group for fish farmers in North America and South America.

Mike Casey, an Environmental Working Group official, acknowledged that the study was small in size. But he said it should prompt federal officials to do more sampling of salmon ‹ and take a closer look at PCBs, which can increase the risk of cancer.

The report recommends that consumers look to wild salmon as an alternate source of fish. The group cited British Columbia and European studies that indicate substantially lower levels of PCBs in wild salmon.

But wild salmon do not always appear to have lower levels of PCBs.

Studies conducted in Puget Sound during the past decade by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife have tested 111 of the Sound's prized chinook.

These tests found the Puget Sound wild chinook averaged PCB levels of 45 parts per billion, a higher level than detected in most of the 10 farmed fish sampled by the Environmental Working Group.

Casey said the Environmental Working Group was unaware of the state study when it compiled the report. Briefed by a reporter, he said the high PCB findings in the wild salmon may reflect industrial pollution in Puget Sound..

But state officials say there is currently no need for dietary restrictions on Puget Sound salmon.

"We don't have enough data to put on a limit," said Robert Duff of the Washington state Department of Health. "It's a balancing act. It's about making reasonable choices. We have stressed until we are almost blue in the face the health benefits of fish, and that people should kept eating fish."

However, Duff said the Health Department has recommended restrictions on other types of fish caught in 13 rivers, lakes and coastal areas in Washington where tests have indicated high levels of PCBs, mercury or other contaminants.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or

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