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PCBs and Mercury in Fish Oil Capsules: Should You Be Concerned?

Updated on August 23, 2012

The medical benefits of fish oil and other omega-3 heavy foods have recently come to the attention of the general public. Doctors and other people in the health care profession are recommending fish oil supplements to people for depression, high triglycerides and neurological problems.

These supplements can have a significant beneficial effect, but it's important to use them wisely. That's because some fish oil supplements have been found to contain dangerous contaminants. If you're worried about PCBs and mercury in fish oil capsules, you need to do your research and find a safe, well-manufactured product.

PCBs

A 2010 lawsuit against five supplement manufacturers alleged that their fish oil capsules contained high levels of poly-chlorinated biphenyl compounds, a type of chemical banned in the late 1970s. Some tested samples exceeded the daily limit for these chemicals in California by more than 10. The contamination comes directly from the fish themselves, which ingest PCBs in their environment, and persists in the fish oil due to inadequate filtering. PCBs are associated with the risk of several dangerous cancers.

Mercury

Mercury and other heavy metals also pose a health risk to people who are taking fish oil supplements. After all, these substances build up in the body over time, eventually producing poisoning with enough exposure. Most fish contain at least a small amount of mercury, but the danger is greater with large, predatory fish like tuna, shark and salmon, which are frequently used to produce fish oil.

These creatures eat a large number of smaller fish, so the mercury and other metals build up inside them. Several supplements have been found to contain low to moderate levels of mercury.

Avoiding Toxins

The risk of dangerous contaminants in fish oil isn't the same for all products, however. It matters what kind of fish the oil is made from, as well as the processing methods used in creating the finished product. For instance, omega-3 fish oil supplements made from species known to be low in toxins, such as tilapia, anchovies, sardines and hoki, is much safer than supplements made from large predators.

Toxin levels are also lower in some parts of the world. PCB and metal contamination tends to be higher in fish that have been caught using unsustainable methods or pulled from places like the North Pacific Ocean. Look for sustainable fishing practices and fish oil products that state what kind of fish they use and there this fish has been caught. This will allow you to avoid the greatest levels of risk from the basic product.

Processing

You can also reduce your potential exposure to PCBs and mercury in fish oil capsules by choosing products that have been processed to remove these substances. Many high-quality fish oil products have been distilled to remove heavy metals and PCBs, making them a safer option.

It's also a good idea to choose fish oil capsules that offer high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, ideally processed from the freshest fish. These products allow you to get more benefit from a given amount of fish oil, reducing your overall exposure. Providers of good quality capsules will list their lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, dioxin and PCB content to prove that they're low risk.

Being concerned about the risk of contaminants in your fish oil supplements makes you a savvy, health-conscious consumer. You don't need to give up taking fish oil entirely, however. It's relatively easy to find a high-quality product that'll provide you with all the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids without a lot of risk.

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