Baltic fish may be too toxic to be sold in the EU

Posted on January, 25 2005

Fish from some areas of the Baltic Sea are so contaminated that they may be too toxic for EU markets, warns WWF.
Brussels, Belgium / Gland, Switzerland – Fish from some areas of the Baltic Sea are so contaminated that they may be too toxic for EU markets, warns WWF.

According to a new report, Clean Baltic within REACH?, every year from the late 1980s to early 1990s, 31kg of polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs) accumulated in the fish caught from the Baltic Sea, and almost certainly ended up on people's plates. 
Some of the fatty fish found in the Baltic do not comply with EU requirements for dioxins, and in 1995 the Swedish authorities recommended that women of childbearing age limit their consumption of Baltic herring and salmon because of the contamination with toxic substances such as furans, dioxins, and PCBs. 
The report also reveals that several fish species, such as Atlantic salmon, sea trout, cod and turbot, have shown signs of reproductive problems in recent decades.

The level of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) found in herring is 5 times higher in the Baltic Sea than in the Atlantic.

But it is not only the fish that is contaminated. The levels of polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs, banned since 2000) and PBDEs in top predators such as seals, guillemots, and white-tailed sea eagles are two to five times higher in the Baltic Sea than in the North Sea and Arctic Ocean.

Other harmful chemicals, such as perfluorinated compounds, have been found lately in harbour porpoises, as well as in various fish and bird species. 
"Baltic species are thoroughly contaminated with chemicals," said Dr Ninja Reineke, Senior Policy Officer with the WWF DetoX Campaign. "This is not just a burden of the past but a major ongoing problem." 
The Baltic Sea is an ecosystem highly sensitive to pollution, as there is little exchange of water with the neighbouring Atlantic Ocean.

As a result, the sea's contaminated water can remain in place for 25 to 30 years. And, to make the situation even worse, low water temperatures and ice cover mean that the chemicals biodegrade extremely slowly. 
WWF stresses that the current EU chemical legislation has failed to protect the Baltic ecosystem and its biodiversity from the toxic threat of hazardous chemicals, but REACH, the new EU legislation on chemicals, could contribute to the protection of a vulnerable area such as the Baltic Sea.

The need to identify and replace the worst chemicals that damage the reproduction and development of marine species is long overdue, the global conservation organization says.

Once implemented, the REACH system will prevent persistent and bioaccumulative substances from further contaminating the Baltic Sea environment. 
"The existing EU chemicals regulation is obviously not able to provide sufficient protection, but the debate about a new EU chemicals policy gives hope for a clean Baltic," said Lasse Gustavsson, Director of WWF's Baltic Ecoregion Programme.

"REACH is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have safer chemicals and a healthier future for wildlife and people. New markets for safer products and increased trust should make it good news for the chemical industry too." 

1. Perfluorinated compounds are used in the production of textiles, food packaging, and non-stick coatings such as Teflon. Brominated flame retardants are used in fabrics and TVs.
2. The Baltic Sea is the youngest sea on the planet. It has a unique marine ecosystem that plays an important role for the 85 million people who live in the area. The Baltic Sea is also the only sea almost entirely within the European Union. Therefore, the EU has a special responsibility for its health.

3. The EU has developed a strategy to reduce human consumption of furans, dioxins and PCBs lower than 14 pg WHO-TEQ per kg bodyweight per week. For a transitional period ending on 31 December 2006, Sweden and Finland have been authorized to place on the domestic market fish from the Baltic region with higher dioxin levels.
This allowance has been granted provided that a system is put in place to ensure that consumers are fully informed about the situation, and particularly about the risks associated with dioxin for identified vulnerable groups of the population (HELCOM 2004). 
4. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is the draft EU law that should lead to the identification and phasing out of the most harmful chemicals. If it becomes law it will be enforced in all European Union countries.

Under the law, chemical producers would be obliged to send a registration dossier containing safety data to a central chemicals agency for all chemicals produced in quantities above one tonne a year. Less information is required the lower the tonnage of chemicals produced. Experts would then evaluate the safety data for higher-volume chemicals and other chemicals of concern. Chemicals of very high concern would be phased out, and replaced by safer alternatives, unless industry can show ‘adequate control’ of the risk from their use or that their ‘socio-economic’ value outweighed the risks. WWF does not think that the draft law is tough enough. 

For more information: 
Julian Scola, Communications Manager
WWF DetoX Campaign
Tel: +32 2 743 8806
Mobile +32 486 117 394

Claudia Delpero, Media Officer 
WWF European Policy Office
Tel: +32 2 740 0925
Olivier van Bogaert, Senior Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9554