Fishing for a Scare

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With every new bit of terrorist-related news, we hear that the color on the Department of Homeland Security's terror threat system is or isn't changing from yellow (elevated) to orange (high), for example (here in New York City it's been orange since 9/11). Not that that change actually gives the average person any real directive on how he or she should change behavior. Now I'm beginning to wonder if we're seeing a similar phenomenon with respect to food salmon in particular.

Last summer we wrote about the scare related to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in farmed salmon. Supposedly these are deadly carcinogens found in higher levels in farmed than wild fish. This produced a spate of new labeling of salmon in stores farmed, organic farmed, wild, etc. even though no one has really confirmed that PCBs are indeed human carcinogens (for more information see ACSH's white paper).

Some of the authors of the above-mentioned salmon study continued their analysis of fish and found yet another group of chemicals polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs) in salmon, as noted in more than one national news source.

PBDEs are widely used flame retardant chemicals. While the news reports are careful to note that no one has ever demonstrated that the very low levels of PBDEs found in the fish present a human health hazard, the articles' implication that they are hazardous is clear. Why else would it warrant media attention? So, even though major health and nutrition groups including the Food and Drug Administration recommend eating salmon for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such stories likely raise the "fish threat alert," perhaps from "low" to "guarded" (or green to blue). Of course, we will likely be hearing from various activist groups that this is really a severe (red) threat to the health and well-being of all especially infants and children (for more on exaggerating risks to children, see ACSH's book).

To take a more balanced approach, remember that those people who, according to studies, had lower rates of cardiovascular disease due to fish consumption probably ate fish full of the very chemicals we're being warned about. And they were healthy anyway, which may indicate that the dire warnings are counterproductive. Something stinks here, but it isn't the fish.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is Nutrition Director at the American Council on Science and Health.