Vegan Health ArticlesPCBs in Fish
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From Michael Greger, MD

Those understandably scared away by the pesticides in shrimp and the mercury in tuna sought refuge in farmed salmon. Of course every study ever done on the flesh of farmed salmon found it to be swimming with carcinogens,[1] but the salmon industry dismissed these prior studies as too small to be meaningful. Finally, though, after 2 years and almost 2 million dollars,[2]] a study was just released which contained an exhaustive analysis of over 2 tons of salmon from around the world.[3] The study was performed by some of the world's leading experts on industrial pollution at Cornell and elsewhere and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.[4] The results sent shockwaves around the world.

The study found that the levels of PCBs, dioxins and banned insecticides such as toxaphene were so high that based on Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, no one should be eating farmed salmon from anywhere in the world more than once a month.[5] Fillets bought in supermarkets in Boston and San Francisco were so heavily contaminated that even a half a serving a month might be too much.[3] And these recommendations just take into account the increased cancer risk. The researchers warn that women and girls should be eating even less, since pregnant women can pass on these contaminants to their fetuses, impairing mental development and immune-system function.[6]

We've known about the industrial toxins that accumulate in the flesh of marine animals caught out in the polluted oceans, but how did these salmon on fish farms get contaminated? Although farmed fish are fed products like cattle blood[7] (which could theoretically infect the fish with a form of mad cow disease),[8] most farmed salmon are fed fish pellets made from wild fish hauled up and slaughtered by giant industrial trawlers from the polluted sea floor. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of wild caught fish to produce just one pound of farm raised fish, so people who think they are not contributing to the global disaster of overfishing by eating farmed fish are deluding themselves.[9] The fish stagnating in these aquatic feedlots are also fed dyes to artificially color their flesh pink and massive infusions of antibiotics to stave off bacterial diseases and sea lice.

The Association of Salmon and Trout Producers calls the new study "dangerous, alarmist and a shot in the dark."[10] George Lucier, former director of the US Department of Health's national toxicological program and author of more than 200 studies on toxic chemicals, disagrees. Backed by other independent US experts, he calls the results "undeniable."[11]

One state health department suggested that instead of telling people to limit their consumption of fish, they'd just tell consumers to eat a variety of fish, cook them so the fat drips off, and avoid eating the skin. David Carpenter, one of the scientists involved in the study, calls the health department's position "total nonsense." "That's just totally irresponsible--totally irresponsible," he said. "It's the responsibility of state health departments - and I worked for the one here in New York - to prevent disease or at least provide people with information so they can make judgments about whether they want to take an elevated risk of disease."[12] Carpenter recommends no one eat farmed salmon more than once a month due to the unacceptable cancer risk alone.[13]

The fish industry argues that although the levels of carcinogens in fish exceed EPA safety standards, they don't exceed FDA standards which allow 40 times more toxins in food. The authors of the study argue that the FDA standards are hopelessly out of date and inconsistent with the stricter standards used in Europe, Japan and Canada.[14] Critics argue that the FDA has a conflict of interest, playing a role in protecting the commercial food industry's profit margin as well as the health of consumers.[15]

Fish industry trade groups claim that giving up salmon "would do more harm than good" because of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish fat.[16] Yes, one industry consultant admits, salmon could cause thousands of cancer deaths, but it might save even more lives by preventing heart attacks.[17] Is that the choice Americans get? Do Americans have to slowly poison themselves in hopes that the fish fat may prevent a future heart attack? This sounds like the tired old dairy industry line about the importance of calcium every time another study comes out questioning the healthfulness of cow milk. Just like there are healthier plant-based sources of calcium, there are healthier plant based sources of omega 3 fatty acids. We don't have to choose between cancer and heart disease.

Our bodies convert the short chain omega 3's found in flax seeds, for example, into the long chain omega 3's found in fish fat, so one can choose to get omega 3's packaged with soluble fiber and antioxidants in flax, rather than getting them packaged with heavy metals and carcinogens in fish. For those who want to take supplemental long chain omega 3's directly, but don't want to be exposed to the high concentrations of PCBs and pesticides in fish oil capsules,[18] there are two vegan algae-based contamination-free supplements currently on the market.[19]

Vegetarians have as little as 1 to 2 percent the level of many pesticides and industrial chemicals in their bodies compared to meateaters. Through food alone, nonvegan Americans are getting 22 times the maximum dioxin exposure set by the EPA. Nursing infants with nonvegan moms get up to 65 times the maximum tolerable dose of this toxic waste. Although the fat in the beef, pork, poultry and milk also contain these carcinogens, this new study shows that the most contaminated flesh food is fish.

Most salmon served in the U.S. is farmed and dangerous.


1 Los Angeles Times January 9, 2004 Friday

2 Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) January 22, 2004

3 Global assessment of organic contaminants in farmed salmon. Science, 2004;303(5655):226-9

4 The Observer, January 11, 2004

5 National Public Radio (NPR) January 8, 2004

6 Los Angeles Times January 9, 2004 Friday


8 Molecular Psychiatry March 1997 Volume 2, Number 2 page 146-147

9 Mail on Sunday (London), January 18, 2004

10 Inter Press Service, January 23, 2004

11 The Sunday Herald, January 18, 2004 z


13 National Public Radio (NPR) January 8, 2004

14 Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) January 21, 2004

15 Los Angeles Times January 24, 2004

16 U.S. News & World Report January 19, 2004

17 Los Angeles Times January 9, 2004 Friday

18 Times Newspapers Limited, January 11, 2004

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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.