Wellwise occasionally receives inquiries about the level of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals that have been found to pose a risk to human health) in krill oil. PCBs, once widely used in industrial processes, electrical equipment and other products, are now everywhere in the environment. Virtually all agricultural products – beef, produce, eggs, seafood – now contain some level of PCBs. Unfortunately, nothing in the world is PCB free, and the higher up the food chain one goes, the more PCBs accumulate.
Prop 65 lawsuit prompts worries
Most of the inquiries WellWise received were prompted by a 2010 lawsuit filed by a group of lawyers calling themselves the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation against eight fish-oil producers and retailers under California’s Proposition 65. Prop 65 has proved to be a nightmare for anyone doing business in California because it allows any citizen to sue companies whose products may contain any level of PCBs, or any one of nearly 900 chemicals suspected of being a health risk.
Even if you don’t live in California, Prop 65 will impact you. Supplement resellers can’t make quality A for California and quality B for other states. The risk that quality B ends up in California, say through Internet purchase, is too great.
The Prop 65 PCB lawsuit claimed that testing revealed the presence of PCBs in a number of fish-oil products. The problem is this: though California had set standard PCB limits for personal health, which were being met by most, the state had not yet established any safe upper limit for PCBs for reproductive risks for future generations (the second part of Prop 65). The fact that California never established a standard for these reproductive PCB risks gave lawyers and opportunity to sue companies whose product contained any level of PCBs.
Even finding one molecule of PCB gives anyone sufficient ground under Prop 65 to pursue a judgment against a company, forcing the company to prove something that may be nearly impossible to prove scientifically.
The supplements named included fish oil, shark oil, fish liver oil and shark liver oil. Because PCBs accumulate in fish higher on the food chain, and because the fish liver is the place that toxins are most likely to be in greater concentration, the lawyers chose likely targets.
So how serious are the risks posed by levels of PCBs in fish oil or krill oil? Should you be worried? Certainly not, and here’s why:
Krill oil and fish oil benefits, including those provided by omega-3 (EPA/DHA) fatty acids, far outweigh any risks. One major study determined that not taking DHA/EPA causes between 72,000-96,000 deaths per year from heart attack alone.1 So far, no one has been able to show that taking an omega-3 product has caused anyone harm, according to Adam Ismael, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA/DHA Development, an 80+ member group that works on all issues relating to the harvesting and marketing of this critical health supplement.
In addition, researchers in the GISSI Prevention trial1 found that taking omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of fatal heart attacks(myocardial infarction) by 30 percent, and sudden death by 45 percent in those who have already had a heart attack. The DART trial showed a 62 percent reduction in cardiac-related death in those taking fish-oil supplements in the DART trial.2
Also, the actual levels of PCBs found in the majority of these products do not appear to exceed even the Prop 65 limit of 90 nanograms a day, and none exceeded 900 nanograms. By comparison, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) permits an 8oz serving of fish to contain about 450,000 nanograms of total PCBs, 500 times more than what was found even in the ones with the highest count. Even the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which tends to be more conservative, says that estimates that the average adult can consume 1,400 nanograms of total PCBs per day without harmful effects.
If California lawyers are allowed to continue on the present course, some say, it is not unlikely that every agricultural product will be a target for Prop 65 lawyers, because the suing lawyers keep a portion of the fines and settlements that companies are forced to pay simply to make them go away. Presently, dietary supplements are their target because they are vulnerable to reputational damage to their brands.
Further reasons not to worry about PCBs in krill oil
1. Krill oil products are relatively free of dioxins and PCBs due to krill’s low place in the food chain (remember, PCBs are a cumulative toxin, absorbed by each fish that eats a smaller one). Krill has a short life span, perhaps as short as two years, and reproduces quickly, replacing the biomass. Bluefin tuna, on the other hand, lives for many years and eats a lifetime’s worth of fish from lower on the food chain. Thus the amount of these contaminants in seafood is really dependent on where in the food chain they exist and how long they live.
2. Proper krill oil processing also reduces PCB contaminants. Krill oil suppliers test their product for dioxins and PCBs. The US Food and Drug Administration has set the tolerance level for PCBs in fish at 2 parts per million(ppm). One krill oil supplier reports that its krill contains PCBs in the very low parts-per-trillion level (ppt), and below detection for some of the more harmful PCBs. Therefore, the nearly undetectable levels of PCB in krill oil supplements easily fall within the FDA safety standards.
Fish oil and PCBs
The fact is you are likely to consume more PCBs in a serving of fish than in a capsule of krill oil or fish oil because fish-oil and krill oil producers test for and remove PCBs, as well as other potential contaminants in the processing phase.
Because of California’s Proposition 65, however, and that state’s current lack of a standard allowable upper limit for PCBs for reproductive risks, organizations such as GOED will likely soon require all of their member companies to use a uniform test for PCBs and to stay below a clear PCB safety level that is accepted by California.
WellWise applauds such forthcoming PCB regulation for fish oil and krill oil because when it comes to PCBs, less is always better despite the rather questionable means at which we have arrived at regulation.
Who was named in the Prop 65 lawsuit
Eight makers of fish oil supplements:
GNC Liquid Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
Nature Made Cod Liver Oil
Nature Made Odorless Fish Oil
Now Foods Double Strength Cod Liver Oil
Now Foods Salmon Oil
Now Foods Shark Liver Oil
Solgar 100 percent pure Norwegian Shark Liver Oil Complex