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FDA Allowed Unsafe Levels of Contaminants in Seafood After BP Oil Spill

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FDA allowed unsafe levels of contaminants in seafood after BP oil spill

The FDA allowed unsafe levels of contaminants in seafood after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, claims researchers in a recently released study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The authors state that the FDA allowed up to 10,000 times too much of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contaminants to remain in seafood from the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill area was deemed safe enough for resumed fishing.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in over 200 million gallons of crude petroleum and another 1.8 million gallons of oil dispersants to be released into fishing waters that comprises approximately 60% of domestic shrimp and 70% of domestic oyster production in the U.S.

Crude oil consists of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are known to cause cancer. What makes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons particularly insidious is that although cleaning of the oil from seawater can be relatively expedient with the proper equipment and resources, clearing of the accumulated chemicals from within seafood crustaceans and mollusks such as shrimp, crab and oyster is difficult and takes a long time.

According to the authors of the study, Dr. Miriam Rotkin-Ellman and Dr. Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the FDA did not just fumble the ball, but dropped it entirely through bad science and a lack of consistent risk assessment measures used toward incidences of oil spills. They state that the FDA’s current “safe levels” of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) - a major environmental and health contaminant of crude oil—are not safe for consumers, especially pregnant women and small children.

According to a blog statement about the study, Dr. Miriam Rotkin-Ellman’s posts that, “We found that FDA’s calculation of allowable levels of contaminants in seafood, after BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, was based on outdated science. As a result, FDA’s “safe levels” were not safe for vulnerable populations because they allowed up to 10,000 times too much cancer-causing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination in Gulf seafood.”

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The authors of the study contend that after reviewing documents gleaned through the freedom of information act about the FDA’s role in determining that seafood from the Gulf Coast BP oil spill was safe, they uncovered six major flaws in the FDA’s risk assessment of PAH in the seafood. The six flaws listed from their study are as follows:

1. Assumed that seafood consumers weigh 176 pounds, whereas many women and all children weigh much less.
2. Underestimated how much seafood (shrimp in particularly) that Gulf Coast residents eat.
3. Ignored the cancer risks of naphthalene, a major contaminant in oil, despite the findings of the National Toxicology Program.
4. Failed to address the vulnerability of pregnant women and small children to contaminants despite a growing body of scientific studies demonstrating increased impacts.
5. Allowed for a higher level of cancer risk than after previous oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
6. Assumed only five years of contamination despite evidence of longer-term contamination after previous spills.

The authors of the study also pointed out that the FDA’s seafood risk assessment with the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast was inconsistent with their own prior practice in other oil spills and with risk assessment guidelines produced by other organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the World Health Organization (WHO), the US EPA, and the California EPA.

Based on their findings of the FDA’s flawed assumptions and math that together seriously underestimates the amount of PAH that should be allowable for safe consumption in seafood, the authors of the paper have filed a petition asking the FDA to not only clean up their math, but clean up their act as well by alerting the public and setting a consistent standard that limits the acceptable levels of PAH in seafood.

According to Dr. Rotkin-Ellman, “Our findings add to a long list of evidence that the FDA is overlooking the risks from chemical contaminants in food,” she says. “We must not wait for people to get sick or cancer rates to rise; we need FDA to act now to protect the food supply.”

Source: “Seafood Contamination After the BP Gulf Oil Spill and Risks to Vulnerable Populations: A Critique of the FDA Risk Assessment” (http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1103695 )

Image credit: Morguefile