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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety

PCBs and consumption of river fish: results of the French national study of PCB concentrations in consumers of freshwater fish

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News of 19/01/2012

19 January 2012

Banned for over 20 years in France and in many other countries, PCBs are chemicals that persist in the environment and are widely spread across the surface of the planet. In Europe and abroad, measures have been taken to reduce the population's exposure to PCBs. In particular, maximum levels in foodstuffs were set in Europe in 2006. In France like in several other European countries, these levels have been exceeded in freshwater fish in several bodies of water. Since 2006, fishing restrictions and recommendations to not consume fish species with the highest levels of PCB accumulation (eel, oily fish, species with high bioaccumulation) have thus been issued locally on the basis of the current regulations. At the French national level, it is recommended to limit the consumption of species with high levels of bioaccumulation (eel, barbel, bream, carp, catfish), particularly for women of childbearing age who are advised to avoid it completely. Indeed, the main critical effects that have been found are effects on mental and motor development in young children exposed during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

In 2008, in this context and in the framework of the French national action plan on PCBs, the French Ministry of Health requested that ANSES, in collaboration with the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance (InVS), undertake a study on blood PCB levels in adult consumers of river fish, and primarily anglers and their family members.

The primary aim of the study was to identify the main factors that determine blood PCB levels. In particular, it aimed to establish whether there was a link between the consumption of freshwater fish with high levels of bioaccumulation and blood PCB levels. This study was intended to help define acceptable frequencies for the consumption of these fish, i.e. with no long-term risks to humans.
After over three years of work, this study's results are being published today.

With the participation of the French national fishing federation (FNPF) and the National committee on professional freshwater fishing (CONAPPED), households of amateur and professional anglers were contacted in six fishing areas, some contaminated with PCBs and others uncontaminated.
A total of 606 amateur angler households and 16 professional angler households were included in the study. Each participant's eating habits and fishing and freshwater consumption practices were noted. At the same time, a blood sample was taken in order to determine blood PCB levels.

This study showed that freshwater fish consumption is low (once a month on average for amateur anglers), particularly of fish with high levels of PCB bioaccumulation (approximately 2.5 times per year). Only 13% of the population of amateur anglers in the study consumes fish with high levels of bioaccumulation more than twice a year.
Secondly, in keeping with the above observation, the blood PCB levels observed in the study's participants were similar to those observed in the general population. They were lower than those observed in France in the late 1980s, when PCBs were first prohibited. In health terms, very few participants exceeded the critical concentration threshold, below which it is considered that there are no risks. Their proportion was similar to that in the general population and included some of the oldest participants.
The study also showed that the consumption of fish with high levels of bioaccumulation is associated with increased blood PCB levels. However, the consumption of these fish has less of an impact on blood levels than in the past, given that PCB levels in the environment have gradually decreased.

On the basis of these results, ANSES issued an internal request in order to determine a maximum frequency for the consumption of fish with high levels of bioaccumulation with no long-term risk and thus refine the recommendations it had previously made in its Opinion of 14 June 2010 (french only) assessing the benefits and risks of fish consumption. In light of this new specific study on risks related to PCBs, ANSES recommends limiting the consumption of freshwater fish with high levels of bioaccumulation (eel, barbel, bream, carp, catfish):

  • to once every two months for women of childbearing age and pregnant or breastfeeding women, as well as children under the age of three years and young and adolescent girls,
  • to twice a month for the rest of the population.

In light of this new study's characteristics, and particularly the fact that it was a broad national study, these recommendations do not apply to areas with very high levels of contamination for which specific risk assessments have been undertaken by the Agency since 2008. Therefore, they do not call into question local recommendations to avoid consumption. On the basis of this study's conclusions, the Agency may propose additional recommendations in 2012 defining procedures for monitoring long-term contamination levels in bodies of water. Furthermore, still in the context of this study, research is being continued in 2012 into other persistent compounds, and particularly perfluorinated and brominated compounds.

Find out more:

> Opinion of 10 November 2011 "on the interpretation of the results of the national ANSES/InVS study of PCB concentrations in consumers of freshwater fish" (pdf, french only)
> National study of PCB concentrations in consumers of freshwater fish (pdf, french only)
> Our PCB close-up