Flame Retardants in Fish

Many people who are interested in health and nutrition find that removing red meat and poultry from their diet goes over easier if they can eat small amounts of fish. On the face of it, this makes sense. Many studies have shown small but measurable benefits in fish eaters versus other groups. Fish do contain higher levels of EPA and DHA than other available animal proteins and may therefore be better than those other sources. Yet there are lots of concerns about fish. Mercury levels can vary widely and it is impossible to know what exactly you are getting, even from day to day in the same species from the same market. Fish are also high in persistent organic pollutants like dioxin. Recent evidence has even implicated them as a possible cause of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Well, we have another potential concern to add to the list. Flame retardants are chemicals that industries have added to many products to reduce home fires, which is great. Fewer fires, I’m in favor of that. But you can never change just one thing. When we started adding flame retardants to all these products, they washed into the water supply and ended up in the world’s disposal system, the oceans. Whales and dolphins are the apex predators of the oceans. Orcas, which are technically a dolphin, now ingest so many flame retardants that their corpses are dangerous to humans who touch them when they wash onto a beach. So what is the risk to people? The evidence from the orcas should make people a bit concerned. There is good evidence that these flame retardants (like dioxins and other similar endocrine disruptors) cause cancer, disrupt hormone function and increase the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes. So what is the danger associated with eating fish, meat and dairy? Well, in a study from Japan, the women who ate the most fish had the highest levels of flame retardants in their breast milk. In a study looking at US exposure, in addition to the amounts inhaled and absorbed by skin (a significant and nearly unavoidable source of exposure), fish, meat and dairy were the highest contributors from the diet. In addition, because fish were eaten least frequently by most people, meat ended up being the source that resulted in the most flame retardant being eaten. But of course, calorie for calorie, fish was the highest source. What’s worse, the levels of flame retardants in Americans appear to be increasing, not decreasing. So if you are trying to improve your health, markedly increasing your fish consumption while dropping meat and dairy may be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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