Fish Oil And Contamination With PCBs Is Now The Subject Of A Lawsuit.

Chemical contamination is everywhere. Even in our oceans, and the results are that those of us who recognize the health benefits of taking the essential fatty acids found in oil from fish known as DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) may be getting an unexpected dose of PCBs with our morning Omega3 supplements. There is now an established link between taking capsules of fish oil and contamination with chemicals like PCBs, and more.

A Californian laboratory tested 10 well known brands of what are generally known as quality fish oil supplements, including some big names such as Nature Made odorless fish oil and Twinlab Norwegian cod liver oil, and found levels of PCB contamination at worrying levels.

PCBs are a particularly pernicious chemical banned in the US since 1979. There are hundreds of different variations, most of which are considered to cause cancer.

In California under proposition 65 it is a legal requirement that consumers be warned of any levels of chemical contamination in excess of certain levels. This is a health measure to warn the general community of worrying levels of contamination with various nasty chemicals, including PCBs.

Proposition 65 sets “safe harbor” limits for upper levels of contamination of PCBs, and the levels found in many of the supposedly high quality fish oil supplements exceeded these levels in some cases, and this was not disclosed to consumers of the products.Fish Oil and PCB Contamination

As a result a lawsuit has now been launched against various manufacturers of fish oil supplements alleging that their “highest quality fish oil” supplements don’t meet the standards required by Proposition 65, and that consumers are not warned of this.

Omega 3 supplements go by a range of descriptions, including “ultra-refined fish oil”, “pharmaceutical-grade fish oil” and more, but none of these is a guarantee of contamination free Omega 3 supplements. None have any legal definition. There is even a set of standards called the International Fish Oil Standards which set maximum levels of chemical contamination, but these are not binding and many people consider the levels for these toxins to be too lax.

Fish oil contamination with PCBs is a serious health concern. There is no doubt now that Omega 3 supplements offer a wide range of recognized health benefits such as a reduction in the risk of heart related health problems such as heart attack and stroke, a reduction in the risks of Alzheimers disease, and much more.

But you don’t want to be getting a dose of PCBs with your Omega 3 essential fatty acids, or you may be doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately this is an ongoing issue. The contamination of our oceans will only get worse, and many of the toxic contaminants dumped in our oceans last for many many years. It isn’t a problem that is going away.

Of course fish don’t know this, fish eat whatever fish eat, and if what they eat is contaminated then fish become contaminated as well. And if we eat that fish then the contaminants pass to us.

And of course it’s not just PCBs, there is a very wide range of industrial toxins which are accumulating in our oceans all the time. One of the more worrying ones is Corexit which was used to help clean up the Gulf oil spill, and which did so.

However although it may have helped clean up the Gulf oil spill there are now questions about how much Corexit is left in the ocean and for how long it will remain there. (And of course there is also the issue of contamination from the oil itself, and no one is 100 percent sure how long oil residue will last and how much of it will find its way into fish).

There’s some vexing issues here for humanity to address. Of course we don’t seek to try and address the issue of industrial contaminants in our waterways on this website, all we seek to do is to try to highlight the problem as it relates to fish oil supplements and give you some guidance.

It is quite possible to test for contaminants in fish oil, as you seen from what we’ve written above tests have shown some capsules to be contaminated.

In our view any consumer of Omega 3 capsules should make the cleanliness, or in other words the absence of toxins, their principal consideration. There is no point in taking supplements for your health if they contain ingredients which are bad for your health.

Part of the solution lies in where the fish are caught that supply the oil. Oceans around areas of heavy population are much more contaminated than oceans in much more remote parts of the globe. We would always prefer to use fish oil supplements that are manufactured from fish oil that comes from fish caught in the most remote location.

And in our view that’s still not sufficient. You should see on the website of the manufacturer a Certificate of Analysis which demonstrates that the capsules you’re considering buying have been independently tested and found to be completely clean.

Otherwise you may be getting a little dose of PCBs in your capsules.


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Don’t be taken in by claims that Omega 3 supplements contain “pharmaceutical grade fish oil”.

Often when you’re researching information about the benefits of Omega 3 fish oils you will see the term “pharmaceutical grade fish oil”. We would like spend some time discussing exactly what “pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplements “are and are not.

The bottom line is that “pharmaceutical grade Omega 3” doesn’t actually exist. It is in fact a marketing term rather than a technical definition relating to the purity or quality of fish oil supplements.

There is no definition of “pharmaceutical grade” in the US Pharmacopeia. The term has come into more common use because companies that manufacture and market Omega 3 supplements use it in an attempt to prove that their products are clean or “pure”.

However there is no organization that determines what “pharmaceutical grade fish oils” are and there is no test to decide whether or not any particular fish oil is “pharmaceutical grade” or not.Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil

In fact it’s very difficult to find any formal standards to which any particular fish oil supplement must comply. There are no binding standards internationally for fish oil grades and every company that manufactures fish oil capsules is free to choose whether or not they comply with any voluntary standards.

There are voluntary standards and you can read more about these in our article about  fish oil purity however none of these are binding and any supplement manufacturer can choose to adhere to the standards or not, or to set its own standards.

There is a very official sounding organization. It is the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS). In fact this is a private organisation that charges a fee to test fish oil products.

Some companies that pass the IFOS test often claim that their products are “pharmaceutical grade fish oil”. As we previously said this is a meaningless term.

However whilst this is a meaningless term there is no doubt that fish oil purity is a serious issue. Fish generally are contaminated with toxins including Mercury, and the FDA warns us not to eat too much for this reason.

Whilst speaking of the FDA, we should add that although the FDA do have standards for fish oil purity they are very easy to meet and most fish oil capsules should have no trouble in meeting them.

So there is every reason for those taking fish oil capsules to be wary about the cleanliness and purity of the Omega 3 fish oils in their capsules.

As you can see from our article about fish oil purity there are in fact a range of standards from different organizations that any manufacturer may or might not choose to meet. The most important thing to consider when buying your fish oil capsules is to get independent evidence of the cleanliness and purity of the fish oil.

We consider the best Omega 3 supplements to be those from Xtend Life. They exceed all the recognized (voluntary) standards and in fact set their own standards for fish oil purity which are substantially below all the recognized standards.

In particular their standard for Mercury is 10 times lower than all 4 major fish oil standards including those of the IFOS.

You should be able to investigate the cleanliness and purity of any fish oil supplements. If you go to the website of any company selling Omega 3 supplements there should be evidence there on the website of independent laboratory testing in the form of an independent Certificate of Analysis.

If you can find a Certificate of Analysis of the fish oils you’re buying you can then see to yourself exactly how pure fish oil is.

Of course this doesn’t mean that you’re getting the best value for money, but it’s an indication of the purity of official you’re buying. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to compare fish oil capsules for value then read our article about how to compare fish oil capsules by price.

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Fish Oil purity is perhaps one of the most important factors in choosing Omega 3 supplements.

If you’re seriously interested in improving your health one of the best things you can do, along with increasing your exercise levels and eating a better diet generally, is to start taking Omega 3 supplements.

We won’t go into all the health benefits of Omega 3 supplementation because we talk about these benefits elsewhere on our website. Today we want to look at the purity of fish oil found in Omega 3 supplements. It’s sad to say but it’s an essential issue to consider when buying fish oil supplements.

Fish are generally contaminated with toxins, in particular mercury, PCBs, dioxins and chlordane. These are chemicals that come from people, they are not naturally found in the ocean, but we put them there due to our activities. Fish accumulate these toxins in their flesh and when we eat the fish we accumulate them too.

These impurities are only present in small amounts, but over time, if you eat a lot of fish, they can build up. That’s why the FDA  has issued warnings about eating too much fish, especially top of the food chain fish.

And if fish oil is used for Omega 3 supplements, as it is, then these toxins can end up in your supplements. Again, very small amounts, but if you take them every day??

There have been instances of fish oil supplements withdrawn for issues of Omega 3 purity, or lack thereof.

So not unreasonably one of the things you need to be concerned with is you’re starting your Omega 3 journey is fish oil purity and mercury levels and levels of other toxins in your supplements. Omega 3 purity is something you must consider seriously.

For these reasons standards have been developed to assess fish oil purity levels. The first was one developed at the University of Guelph in Canada. These are called the International  Fish Oil Standards (IFOS). Along with the international Fish Oil Standard there is others as well.

There are now 4 recognized international standards for fish oil, and we reproduce a table below showing the different levels of contamination which is accepted by the different standards. The other 3 are the from the Council For Responsible Nutrition (CFRN), the European Pharmacopoeia and the Norwegian Medicinal Standard.

None of these are binding on companies producing fish oil supplements, each company can choose to comply or not. And of course the Omega 3 manufacturers can also choose which fish oil standards to comply with if any, as the levels vary for acceptable purity.

Here’s the different standards set out in a table. Note that we include the standards that are set by Xtend Life, who make what we consider is by far the best fish oil capsules on the market. They believe that the current standards are are a little too generous, and prefer to observe their own, stricter, standards.

Toxin Xtend Life International Fish Oil Standards Council For Responsible Nutrition European
Arsenic (ppb) 50 100 100 100 100
Cadmium (ppb) 10 100 100 100 100
Mercury (ppb) 10 100 100 100 100
Lead (ppb) 50 100 100 100 100
Total PCBs (ppt) 5 45 90 N/A N/A
Total Dioxins &
Furans (ppt)
0.5 1 2 2 2

>> N/A means ‘Not Available’
>> ppb means part per billion and ppt means parts per trillion
>> IFOS although included in the table is not a recognized entity. It is a private organization and it is claimed by some ‘observers’ that it was established for the benefit of a few marketers of fish oil.

You can clearly see that the levels of purity that are set by Xtend Life for it’s own supplements are dramatically stricter than the others.

In particular they specify a level for mercury that is 10 times lower than the other “official” standards for fish oil purity. You can also see that their purity levels are much lower for other contaminants too.

Now of course it’s tempting to think that maybe they tell us they maintain those levels of Omega 3 purity, but in reality they don’t really. How do we really KNOW that they are.

Here’s how you know. They do something that is quite unusual, maybe even unique, in the industry. They have every batch if fish oil they use independently tested, by two separate independent labs, not their own lab.

Then they publish the result, in what is called a Certificate Of Analysis (COA) on their website. Here’s a copy of their COA showing no detectable contaminants at all. (Below)

Try finding a COA for other brands of fish oil supplements, and try finding out who tests their fish oils.

Fish Oil Purity
Omega 3 Purity

What more can we say.

So remember, fish oil purity is really quite a serious matter. When choosing fish oil supplements you’ve got to go way beyond price to do a serious comparison.

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