Consumers who take fish oil supplements for health reasons are now faced with a report that eight popular supplement manufacturers are being sued for selling fish oil products that contain cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The lawsuit has been brought by two citizen environmentalists and the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation.
The lawsuit was filed in California and claims that the eight companies violated the state’s Proposition 65, which requires that consumers be warned about exposure to chemicals. The manufacturers named in the suit include CVS Pharmacy, General Nutrition Corp., Now Health, Omega Protein, Pharmavite, Rite Aid, Solgar, and Twinlab.
Twenty years ago, California officially named PCBs as known carcinogens and known reproductive toxins, which makes them subject to the state’s warning requirement. The Environmental Working Group notes that studies in the 1970s linked PCBs to cancer and other health problems. Companies in the United States stopped making PCBs in 1977, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most uses in 1979.
PCBs persist for a long time in the environment, however, and improper disposal of old equipment that contains PCBs continues to contaminate the water and soil. The EPA reports that from 1987 to 1993, more than 74,000 pounds of PCBs were released to water and land, much of them in California.
About 37 percent of adults and 31 percent of children take an omega-3 supplement for health reasons, according to a 2007 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as fatty fish, and omega-3 supplements most commonly include fish oil, but some use flaxseed oil and walnut oil.
According to the plaintiffs, their initial testing revealed levels of PCBs that ranged from about 12 nanograms per recommended dose to more than 850 nanograms. The suit claims that all eight manufacturers have violated Proposition 65 because they did not disclose any non-zero PCB levels in their fish oil supplements.
The suit also claims that manufacturers use labels that say “Screened for PCBs” or “Treated to Remove PCBs” but that these labels falsely imply that the toxins have been removed completely. The plaintiffs also believe that supplement makers have data on the amount of PCBs in their products but have chosen to keep that information from consumers.
So should current fish oil supplement users turn to eating fish? The main dietary sources of PCBs are fish, especially those caught in contaminated lakes and rivers. However, among the most popular fish in the United States are tuna and pollock, which are ocean fish, and salmon. These fish can also be contaminated, however, with mercury, organochlorine, and other toxins.
Turning to fish is likely not the answer, however, since Americans are not big fish eaters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures show that the per capita seafood consumption is only 16 pounds. Other omega-3 fatty acid options include flaxseed oil and walnut oil supplements.
Naturally, all of the fish oil supplement makers named in the PCB suit are innocent until or unless proven guilty. According to a story reported by CBS News, two previous reports—one from Consumer Reports and another from Consumer Lab--did not find any unsafe levels of PCBs, mercury, or dioxin in a wide variety of supplements. So the story remains to be told.
Environmental Working Group
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration