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First-Ever U.S. Tests of Farmed Salmon Show High Levels of Cancer-Causing PCBs

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Working Group (EWG) today released results of the most extensive tests to date of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) levels in farmed salmon consumed in the United States. EWG bought the salmon from local grocery stores and found seven of 10 fish were so contaminated with PCBs that they raise cancer-risk concerns, relative to health standards of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Salmon farming has made salmon the third most popular fish in America — and comprises 22 percent of all retail seafood counter sales. However, EWG analysis of government data also found that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the current U.S. food supply.

EWG analysis of state-of-the-art fish consumption data derived from 20,000 adults from 1990 through 2002 shows that roughly 800,000 US adults are 100 times over their lifetime allowable cancer risk by eating this contaminated salmon.

PCBs were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s and are among the “dirty dozen” chemical contaminants slated for global phase-out under the UN treaty on persistent organic pollutants. PCBs are highly persistent, and they have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.

Farmed salmon are fattened with ground fishmeal and fish oils that are high in PCBs. As a result, salmon farming operations that produce inexpensive fish unnaturally concentrate PCBs and have a higher fat content. Farmed salmon contains 52 percent more fat than wild salmon, according to USDA data.

Wild Alaskan salmon eat Pacific Ocean fish that are naturally lower in persistent pollutants, and they carry less fat than farmed salmon.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has control over store-bought fish, uses PCB safety standards set in 1984. For recreationally caught fish, the EPA employs a more recent standard that reflects current scientific concerns about PCBs and is 500 times safer than the FDA's.

“FDA could not have predicted the rise of the farmed salmon industry when it set its PCB safety standard decades ago,” said EWG Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan. “The industry’s growth has been rapid and unexpected, but it is having a real public health consequence.”

EWG called for more resources to be given to the FDA so it can move quickly to conduct a study of PCB contamination in farmed salmon - and make all the results public. This testing is critical, because FDA will be unable to act to lower public exposure to PCBs in farmed salmon until they conduct these studies. Congress should also pass a funding increase for FDA to support this testing.

In the meantime, EWG recommends that consumers choose wild instead of farmed salmon, and they should eat an eight-ounce serving of farmed salmon no more than once a month. Consumers should also trim fat from the fish before cooking - and choose broiling, baking, or grilling over frying, as these cooking methods allow the PCB-laden fat to cook off the fish.

Wild salmon dominated the market just ten years ago. Now, six of every 10 salmon fillets sold in stores and restaurants are from fish raised in high-density pens in the ocean, managed and marketed by the salmon farming industry. Before salmon farming, PCB exposure was declining, but the trend is now being reversed due to farmed fish.

“When Congress banned PCBs in 1976, no one contemplated that 20-odd years later we would have invented a new industry that re-concentrates these toxins in our bodies,” said Houlihan.

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Editor’s note: Fish testing laboratory contact is
Laurie Phillips
AXYS Analytical Services
Sidney, BC
Phone: (250) 655-5800