I am a dietitian who has recommended fish to many clients seeking a healthier source of protein. I, too, love the ease of preparation, the "lightness" of how I feel after eating a fish meal and the satisfaction of knowing I've made a good choice. But have I?
Overall, fish is a very healthy food. It's a great source of high quality protein (YELLOW list food in RYGforHealth), Vitamin D and one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3’s are essential for growth and development, brain health and also linked to reducing inflammation and the risk of heart attack, stroke and even depression. Let’s not forget – fish is easy to prepare and it's truly delicious.
Do the benefits outweigh the risk – the risk of eating a lot of bad stuff? Should I maybe get my omega-3’s from other foods, like walnuts and flax seeds?
Why I Have Fear
Fear - Reservations - Concerns - whatever you want to call it. I needed to do some research. I need to feel good about what I eat and I don’t think I’m alone.
Let's take a look at some of this stuff. I'm no expert -- just a concerned citizen looking for an answer.
WHAT ARE POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYLS (PCB's)?
PCB's, a group of 209 manufactured organic chemicals, were first made by the US in 1929. They were used as coolants in electrical equipment, in metal cutting oils, in microscope lens oils, in inks, dyes and carbonless copy paper. You can still find PCB's in old fluorescent light fixtures and appliances made before 1978.
PCB's were banned in 1977 because they were found to be a probable cause of certain cancers such as liver, brain, gall bladder and GI, to name a few.
Women exposed to PCB's during pregnancy gave birth to children with neurological and motor control problems, in addition to lower IQ.
PCB's disrupt hormone function which has resulted in changes in menstrual cycles in women, low sperm count in men and premature puberty in kids. They may even alter immune function.
Even though they were banned in 1977, PCB's can still be found all over the world in the environment -- in the air, rivers, lakes and oceans ending up in the food chain. They don't degrade.
Eating fish is a route of exposure.
WHAT IS MERCURY?
Mercury is a naturally occurring toxic metal that is found in low levels everywhere. It never breaks down, but keeps circulating through the global environment. It comes from mining and other industries such as coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators, and certain factories.
Mercury enters streams, rivers, lakes and oceans primarily through rain and surface water runoff. Bacteria can then convert it to an organic form called methylmercury -- the form that is dangerous to people.
Eating fish is a route of exposure.
WHAT IS DIOXIN?
Dioxins are chemical byproducts of combustion from waste incinerators, chemical plants, paper and pulp mills and other facilities. Agent Orange, a well-known herbicide sprayed by the US military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, is part of this group that contains about 30 other compounds. Dioxin also hangs around in the environment and accumulates in the bodies of humans, animals and fish.
There are serious health risks associated with exposure, even low level, to dioxin: cancer, reduced sperm count, disrupted hormones, diabetes, neurological effects, and immune function changes….. Sound familiar????
Eating fish is a route of exposure.
WHAT IS DDT?
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is a very effective and inexpensive insecticide that was first made in 1874. It was initially used by the US military in World War II to control malaria, typhus, body lice and bubonic plague.
Farmers used it for crops and it was used in buildings for pest control. It, too, lasts a long time in the environment.
In 1972, DDT was banned in the US due to increased health concerns such as cancer, nerve damage, and miscarriages, to name a few.
Eating fish is a route of exposure.
For all these pollutants, there is a common phenomenon called biomagnification. All fish contain these pollutants.
In a nutshell . . .
Little fish eat plankton contaminated with all this stuff.
Big fish eat little fish PLUS all the accumulated pollutants in the little fish.
So . . . big fish have concentrated (biomagnified) amounts of bad stuff in their flesh -- specifically in the fat tissue. This accumulates over the years.
For this reason, big fish that live a long time and top predators like sword fish and shark, have the highest chemical levels -- mercury and other pollutants.
According to EPA, for example, mercury concentrations in fish can be 1 to 10 million times the mercury concentration in the water.
WHAT ABOUT THE FALLOUT FROM FUKUSHIMA?
This question has led me down a rabbit hole of sorts. As someone who really has a tough time understanding this stuff, this is how I see it.
The Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is one of the largest nuclear power stations in the world, consisting of six boiling water reactors.
A massive earthquake (9.0 magnitude) on 3/11/2011 in Japan caused a deadly tsunami that extensively damaged the power plant by disabling the reactor cooling system.
Nuclear radiation (radioactive isotopes) leaked out and contaminated the air, water and ground surrounding the nuclear power plant in addition to spreading to other parts of the world especially through water and ocean currents. The core still remains hot and releasing harmful radiation into the environment today.
Cesium-134 and cesium-137 (types of radioactive isotopes) leaked into the ocean in amounts 10X more than what was released into the Baltic Sea and Black Sea after Chernobyl. In other words, it was a lot.
Cesium accumulates in fish muscle tissues. Some facts of note about cesium:
It increases only slightly moving up the food chain.
It's rapidly lost from the muscle after radiation exposure stops or the fish swims to less affected water.
In recent testing, very low levels were found in tuna caught off the San Diego coast.
As per Ken Buesseler, PhD, a leading expert in marine and geochemistry who has tracked the radiation since the earthquake, states:
"Cesium has gone down, but strontium-90 (a byproduct of nuclear fission) has not. This embeds into the bones and takes 2 years to pass through the body, unlike cesium which takes 2 months”.
“We live in a radioactive world. Some say we shouldn’t have cesium in the fish….
How much more did Fukushima add?
What other isotopes are already in the fish?
Don’t worry about the cesium, because there are other things in much higher amounts”.
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is really the only one of its kind, of its magnitude to date -- the answers to many questions are unknown due to a significant knowledge gap.
The experiences of previous nuclear disasters like Hiroshima, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl can’t answer the questions we are faced with today re: Fukushima. (The Lancet, Vol. 386, No. 9992)
What about the whales that have died off the coast of Alaska for reasons yet to be determined by the scientists?
Or the fisheries that have been shut down on the West Coast from California to Washington due to toxic algae bloom?
Or the most recent 6.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan on 11/21/2016 that struck close to the epicenter of the 2011 quake and triggered tsunami waves at the location? Yikes, not again?!?!?!
Is it warmer ocean temperatures?
Is it just a natural coarse of nature or something more sinister?
Perhaps some connection to an increase in radioactive isotopes and other factors -- the full implication on nature that has yet to be presented or understood?
Everyone has to make their own decision about how these facts will affect their lives.
Some scientists believe there isn't cause for concern. Others think otherwise. Overall, the consensus is to be vigilant and keep testing. But for me -- once again -- I have concerns.
BOTTOM LINE: HOW CAN I LIMIT EXPOSURE?
We all have background exposure to all these compounds (called body burden), because, frankly, they're impossible to totally avoid. However, we've got to reduce this exposure as much as possible.
Choose smaller fish. Since many of the pollutants are stored in the fatty tissue of fish and other animals, its best to eat the smaller, younger and leaner varieties of fish. (Note: Mercury and radioactive isotopes are stored in the protein flesh and bones).
Farmed salmon is higher in PCB's as compared to wild salmon because of the higher fat content and the use of fish meal and fish oil feed. This fish meal and oil is made from fish found in polluted waters.
When cooking salmon and other fatty fish:
Trim away fatty areas such as the belly, top of the back, and dark meat along the side.
Remove or puncture the skin before cooking to allow fat to drain off.
Broil, grill, roast or steam the fish on a rack to allow fat to drain.
Don't fry large, fatty types of fish such as salmon and bluefish.
Throw away fat drippings. Don’t use them in other cooking.
Eat a variety of fish. Mix it up. Not only for fish but for meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables as the amount found in different foods varies.
Buy in season. It's cheapest and easiest to find fresh in stores.
Know your source. Buy American and local if you can. Research the waters around your area. Note that statewide advisories urge people to limit their consumption of all fish and shellfish from freshwater or coastal areas.
Visit the EPA fish advisory and other websites for more information to be on the safe side.
All this bad stuff accumulates in our bodies over time so if you're planning to have kids, start now to be smart about your fish choices. Pollutants pass through the placenta and are found in the milk of nursing mothers which causes harm to babies and children and, sadly, are permanent.
Caution for children under the age of 12. Smaller portions and limited frequency are in order.
STOP IN YOUR TRACKS - Avoid
MERCURY - avoid big, predatory, bottom feeders -- Ahi tuna, tilefish, bluefish, swordfish, shark, orange roughy, white albacore tuna, King mackerel and Marlen.
PCB's - avoid albacore tuna, sardines, herring, salmon* (see in GO-AHEAD section below for more details on salmon as it is so popular today).
DDT - avoid imported fatty fish from countries that still allow DDT use. As of 2015, these countries include Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Swaziland, India and North Korea.
DIOXIN - avoid fatty fish and trim fat from fish as mentioned earlier. Not related to fish at all, but worth a mention - trim fat from meats and use low fat dairy products due to accumulated dioxin.
Lower in PCB's - Shrimp, Bluefish. *Wild Salmon - it matters where it comes from - (Alaska) 4x/month OK, Wild Salmon (Washington) 1x/month, Rainbow Trout (2-3 x/month).
MY COMMENTARY ON BALANCE
I've spent a lot of time researching and, honestly, after a while the information is so overwhelming I had to step away. Are we (or should I say, I) becoming too focused about the safety of everything I/we eat? Are we all doomed?
I have to remember the Bible verses I learned so long ago – perhaps this is the best advice to reconcile all this in my brain….
"It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person".
1 Timothy 4:4
"For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer".
ANOTHER BOTTOM LINE:
Just as man does not live by bread alone, man does not live by fish alone, either.
Variety, limit the amount and caution especially for these groups: a) women planning to get pregnant, b) women who are pregnant, c) nursing women and d) children under the age of 12.
Even too much of good thing can be bad -- it truly is all about balance.