Fish Oil Supplements -- Want PCBs With That?

If you're taking fish oil for your health, you may want to rethink your next pill. According to a lawsuit filed in California on Tuesday, many popular fish oil companies knowingly sell products with unnecessarily high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds—despite claims on the label that the product has been treated and is safe from PCB contamination. PCBs are a toxic manmade chemical thought to cause birth defects, cancer, and disruption to the endocrine, reproduction, immune, and nervous systems, so their presence in a supplement taken strictly for health benefits seems a little counterproductive.

California's Proposition 65, established in 1986, prohibits companies from knowingly exposing people to toxic substances without providing clear warnings—which is precisely what the lawsuit says some brands of fish and shark oil products have been doing. Eight companies are named in the suit—CVS Pharmacy, Inc.; General Nutrition Corp. (GNC); Now Health Group, Inc.; Omega Protein, Inc.; Pharmavite LLC (Nature Made brand); Rite Aid Corp.; Solgar, Inc.; and TwinLab Corp.—and others are likely to be added as further testing is carried out. There's lots to learn over at

Due to the contamination of so much of the world's water supply, the presence of PCBs in fish oil is not a surprise—what is a surprise is how many of the products labeled as "treated" actually had extremely high contamination. Some brands had PCB levels as high as 70 times other brands—and they all have the capacity to reduce that, which is where the lawsuit comes in. If successful, companies will be required to either clean up their product, or warn their customers about the toxicity—and David Roe, a lawyer for the plaintiff, thinks that no company is going to want to advertise how dangerous it is, so the end result should be healthier products on consumer shelves. And the hope is that with market effect, "if one company cleans up, other companies will feel competition pressure to get clean."

The list of samples tested is not comprehensive, of course, but it illustrates how wide the range is between products you can buy on the shelves. Rode said that Omega Protein, one of the defendants and the biggest bulk fish oil supplier in the business (and which also puts out its own label), is omitted from the results that were made public because it was tested in a preliminary round and to different standards than the next batch—standards that are rigorous and costly, because PCBs are actually a family of 209 compounds, all of which have to be tested for individually. Which is likely the reason this issue has not come up until now: who is willing to put in the $1,000-plus for each test?

In Roe's experience with other lawsuits under Proposition 65, the ruling in California can have a nationwide effect and improve products across the board, because any company with a reputation and a brand name "would be crazy to sell a version that the company itself is already doing better than."

Flax wins again

Roe did say that while all the fish oil products contained some contamination, the only two products that tested for zero PCBs were flax and algae-based omega 3. It has been claimed as a superfood countless times before, and the lack of PCBs is another reason to add to the list.


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