A new global analysis of seafood found that fish populations throughout the world's oceans are contaminated with industrial and agricultural pollutants, collectively known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
The study from researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego also uncovered some good news: Concentrations of these pollutants have been consistently dropping over the last 30 years.
The findings, reported in the Jan. 28 issue of the journal PeerJ, were based on an analysis by Scripps researchers Lindsay Bonito, Amro Hamdoun and Stuart Sandin of hundreds of peer-reviewed articles from 1969 to 2012. The pollutants studied included older "legacy" chemicals, such as DDT and mercury, as well as newer industrial chemicals like flame retardants and coolants.
"Based on the best data collected from across the globe, we can say that POPs can be anywhere and in any species of marine fish," Scripps biologist Sandin, a co-author of the study, said.
Although POPs were found in fish in all of the world's oceans, the researchers said concentrations in the consumable meat of marine fish are highly variable, where one region or group of fish may find concentrations of POPs that vary by 1,000-fold. The analysis revealed that average concentrations of each class of POPs were significantly higher in the 1980s than today, with a drop in concentration of 15-30% per decade.
"This means that the typical fish that you consume today can have approximately 50% of the concentration of most POPs when compared to the same fish eaten by your parents at your age," said Bonito, the lead author of the study. However, "there still remains a chance of getting a fillet as contaminated as what your parents ate."
The researchers also compared the results to federal safety guidelines for seafood consumption and found that the average levels of contaminants were at or below the health standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl concentrations were at the EPA threshold for occasional human consumption, while concentrations of DDT were consistently much lower than the established threshold.
According to the researchers, these results suggest that the global community has responded to the calls to action, such as in the Stockholm Convention, to limit the release of potentially harmful chemicals into the environment.
The researchers cautioned that although pollutant concentrations in marine fish are steadily declining, they still remain quite high, and understanding the cumulative effects of numerous exposures to pollutants in seafood is necessary to determine the specific risk to consumers.