PCB: the role of ANSES

The Agency’s missions

For several years now, PCB pollution of French waterways and its impact on the population has been a topical issue. Since 2003, the Agency and its experts have been working on this difficult topic and have issued over twenty Opinions in order to assess the precise health risks associated with consuming PCB-contaminated fish, to provide the State with the necessary clarification for managing the risk associated with these contaminants at the national level, and to help revise European regulations on PCBs in particular.

Risk assessment

Since 2003, in collaboration with its groups of experts, the Agency has issued several opinions on the assessment of health risks. This work has provided an update on the toxicityof these substances and established toxicity thresholds below which the probability of effects on health is regarded as negligible. These thresholds were defined, for food consumption, in 2005 for DL-PCBsand in 2007 for NDL-PCBs,and for blood PCB levels in 2010.

The Agency has also conducted several studies monitoring exposure in the general population (the Total Diet Study in 2011) or in specific groups of consumers most at risk, such as consumers of large quantities of seafood (CALIPSO study, 2004).

This appraisal provided the scientific support needed to move forward with the assessment of risk associated with these substances. In these opinions, ANSES was able to inform the decisions of public authorities to help them provide even better protection for the general population and vulnerable populations in particular (women of childbearing age, nursing mothers, children under three years of ageand regular consumers of highly contaminated foods related to a local emission source, for example) regarding PCB exposure at the national and European levels.

Support for themanagement of the PCB risk in freshwater fish

In February2008, the Ministry of Ecology, in partnership with the Ministries of Agriculture and Health, launched a national action plan on PCBs. This plan followed the discovery of high levels of contamination in sediments and fish in several French waterways. At that time, ANSES further strengthened its contribution to the assessment of exposure and risks associated with PCBs with its involvement in two actions under the plan:

  • implementation of a national sampling plan for aquatic environmentsand interpretation of levels of contamination in fish;
  • coordination of a study on blood PCB levels in consumers of freshwater fish.

In this context, the French National Agency for Water and Aquatic Environments (ONEMA) was asked to conduct sampling of river fishin order to provide a map of contamination in fish. ANSES worked in conjunction with ONEMA to suggest a methodology for implementing the sampling plan.

From the data generated during this process, the Agency has issued over twenty Opinions since 2009 that have provided the Statewith a health-related interpretation of the analyses performed, information needed to manage the risk associated with PCBs in all catchment basins at the national level.

On the basis of these Opinions, health authorities were then able to define zones where consumption of game fish should be prohibited (zones where all fish species are contaminatedat levels exceeding the regulatory maximum limits) or otherwise those where fishing can be allowed because there is no health risk (zones where no fish species exceeds the regulatory limits).

In the intermediate zones in which only some of the fish species are contaminated, temporary consumption restrictions were set up to enable additional analyses and identification of fish species that are fit for consumption.

Finally, and still with in the framework of the national action plan on PCBs, the Agency was commissioned to carry out a study of PCB exposure and blood levels in adult consumers of river fish, mainly fisherman and members of their families. This study, conducted in partnership with the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance (InVS), was aimed at analysing blood PCB levels in these subjects, irrespective of whether or not they consume river fish, in areas more or less contaminated by PCBs. Its objective was also to describe the consumption of freshwater fish, identify the main determinants of PCB contaminationand help define the frequency of consumption of fish that are high bio-accumulators of PCBs without involving long-term human risk.