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Summary of Health Risks from Eating Oil-Spill Contaminated Fish or other Seafood

  • EXPOSURE to CRUDE OIL or HEATING OIL-CONTAMINATED FISH - CONTENTS: Health risks from contaminated seafood in areas of oil spills. Summary of oil spill-related contaminants found in seafood. Key documents on oil spill related seafood test procedures. Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and in the Nigerian Delta. Heating oil exposure limits for liquid or airborne contact. Oil tank smells & odors, sources of heating oil odors in or at buildings
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about the types & levels of contamination & health hazards in fish & other seafoods when contaminated by oil spills such as crude oil or heating oil

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Contaminated seafood hazards due to oil spills:

This document explains the common reasons for oil tank leaks in or from home heating oil storage tanks.

Both underground tank leaks and above ground storage tank leak causes are discussed. Oil tank leaks are caused by corrosion, mechanical damage, soil conditions, other factors which are explained here.

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Health Risks from Eating Oil-Spill Contaminated Fish or other Seafood

Fish from The actual level of oil or oil product contamination in various foods including types of fish is likely to vary widely as a function of the individual fish or food product, its location, its own exposure to spilled or leaked oil.

Below we list excerpts from various news reports and documents that provide some insight into this concern.

Fish photo (left, not contaminated) courtesy of Simply Seafoods -

Article Series Contents

Because fishermen are "not allowed" to fish in oil-spill contaminated waters, oil-contaminated seafood is not normally expected to reach consumers. A scan of the thundered of articles discussing the effect of a long history of oil spills in the Nigerian Delta supports this view for a second reason - severely oil-contaminated seafood is virtually inedible. A result is that popular media articles have not reported in depth on the actual contaminants in seafood from or near areas of oil spills.

As of mid June 2010, we had not found U.S. media reports confirming contamination in seafood near the Gulf of Mexico oil spill - but our OPINION is that conditions in that area remain evolving and that to date testing and studies in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil spill area incomplete. By late June 2010, at least one third of the Gulf of Mexico fishing areas had been closed to commercial fishing, and the impact on U.S. fish markets, restaurants, and consumers had begun in the form of decreased fish supply and economic losses to workers and businesses throughout the seafood industry. - Reuters

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported (29 May 2010, that "Part of the federal government response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the monitoring of environmental conditions that might affect public health and the safety of seafood."

The Food and Drug Administration is closely monitoring the developing situation in the Gulf Coast region to help ensure that seafood potentially impacted by the oil spill is not making its way into commerce. FDA scientists are working with experts at NOAA’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss., on methods to test fish, crabs, shrimp, and oysters, for harmful oil residues.  One of FDA’s mobile labs is deployed to the Gulf Coast and will be used to conduct prescreening analysis of seafood samples being evaluated to determine if waters closed to fishing and shellfish harvesting can be re-opened. - original source:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other U.S. agencies provided this 30 April 2010 update on the health risks associated with seafood from the Gulf of Mexico following the crude oil spill there:

Although crude oil has the potential to taint seafood with flavors and odors caused by exposure to hydrocarbon chemicals, the public should not be concerned about the safety of seafood in the stores at this time.

Earlier this week, the state of Louisiana opened some commercial zones to shrimping ahead of the regular season, to allow fishermen to harvest before the oil reached those zones; however, the State has since closed some of those zones to shrimping based on the location and movement of the oil spill.

At sunset on April 30, 2010, the state of Louisiana closed the molluscan shellfish beds in growing areas 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 to harvest. The closure is a precautionary measure taken because of the possible adverse environmental effects of the oil spill in the area. FDA and the NOAA Fisheries Service will continue to monitor the situation and notify the public if any problem is detected with seafood from this area of the country.
- websearch 6/17/2010, original source:

Summary of Oil Contaminants in Seafood - what contaminants occur, where are they found?

  • Wild finfish are unlikely to become contaminated or tainted because they typically are either not exposed or are exposed only briefly to the spilled oil and because they rapidly eliminate petroleum compounds taken up. If nearshore sediments are contaminated, species that spawn in nearshore and shallow waters are more likely to be exposed to spilled oil than pelagic and benthic species.
  • Shellfish are more likely than finfish to become contaminated from spilled oil because they are more vulnerable to exposure and less efficient at metabolizing petroleum compounds once exposed. Shellfish are generally less mobile and have more contact with sediments, which can become contaminated and serve as a long-term source of exposure.
  • Among crustaceans, species that burrow are at the highest risk of exposure at spills where bottom sediments are contaminated, followed by species that utilize nearshore and estuarine benthic habitats.
  • Bivalves are at high risk of contamination because they are sessile, filter-and deposit feed, and occur in substrates in shallow tidal and intertidal areas that are more likely to become contaminated.
  • It is generally accepted that uptake and elimination rates both increase with temperature, though study results are somewhat contradictory.
  • PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons) tend to accumulate to higher concentrations in lipid-rich tissues and organisms. Seasonal differences in tissue lipid content associated with spawning may influence uptake and elimination rates of PAHs in some marine species.
  • Chronic exposure to hydrocarbons in water and sediments may reduce elimination capacity.

- Websearch 6/17/2010, original source: "Is Delaware Bay Seafood Safe to Eat?", University of Delaware, College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment,

Key Recommendations for Protecting from Unsafe Seafood in Areas of Oil Spill Incidents

Managing Seafood Safety after an Oil Spill [PDF], Ruth Yender, Jacqueline Michel & Christine Lord, published by NOAA - quoting from that document's introduction:

Seafood safety is a concern raised at nearly every oil spill incident of any significance. Both actual and potential contamination of seafood can substantially affect commercial and recreational fishing and subsistence seafood use. Loss of confidence in seafood safety and quality can impact seafood markets long after any actual risk to seafood from a spill has subsided, resulting in serious economic consequences. Protecting consumers from unpalatable and unsafe seafood is a primary objective of federal and state public health agencies after a spill occurs. Seafood managers may be faced with making many urgent decisions after an oil spill, often based on limited data:

  • Should seafood harvest in the spill area be closed or restricted?
  • If closed, what criteria should be applied to re-open a fishery?
  • How should seafood safety and palatability be evaluated?
  • How can health risks best be communicated to the public?

Public health officials and other seafood managers do not routinely deal with oil spills as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Consequently, they typically have little experience with risks to seafood from oil spills when they suddenly are faced with determining appropriate seafood management actions in response to a spill.

The objective of this guide is to provide seafood managers and other spill responders with information to help them evaluate the likelihood that an oil spill will contaminate seafood, determine whether seafood actually has been contaminated, and assess and communicate human health risk from eating contaminated seafood.

Guidance on Sensory Testing and Monitoring of Seafood for Presence of Petroleum Taint Following an Oil Spill [PDF], NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS OR&R 9 - quoting from that document's introduction:

When an oil spill occurs, local seafood resources may be exposed to petrochemicals that affect their sensory qualities (taste, smell, and appearance). Even when seafood samples from the spill area pass the standard chemical-analytical tests (the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are below the limits permitted as determined by human health risk assessment), flavor or odor still may be affected. Taint in seafood renders it adulterated and unfit for human consumption according to U.S. law (Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, US Code 21, Chapter IV, Sec. 402 [342], a.3).

The specific compounds in oil responsible for causing off-flavors and off-odors in seafood have not been determined with certainty. Experience at recent oil spills indicates that, when well-trained sensory panelists conduct sensory testing, there is generally a high degree of correlation between the results of chemical analysis and sensory testing. Because this correlation is not absolute, there is a role for both sensory and chemical analysis in assessing adulteration and safety of seafood. Analytical instrumentation, particularly hand-held electronic noses, continue to advance and may eventually play a significant role at oil spills as tools for rapid assessment. However, at their present state of sophistication, these instruments are chemical detectors only, incapable of making any sensory judgment on odor or flavor. The final judgment about the presence and absence

Readers concerned about possible health effects of eating oil-spill-contaminated seafood, fish, or other food products should also review the crude oil and heating oil material safety data sheets (MSDS) listed at the top of HEATING OIL EXPOSURE HAZARDS, LIMITS for basic health information.

Nigeria: Oil Spills in the Nigerian Delta - Consumers Shun Fresh Fish

Because of a long history of more than fifty years of oil spills in the area, Nigeria appears most prominently in response to a search for oil spill-related environmental and food damage.

Restaurateurs and sea-food dealers in coastal communities in [Ibeno, Southern] Akwa Ibom State say the recent oil spillage in the area has affected the consumption of fresh fish by the people. They attributed the development to fear among the people over the possibility of buying fish poisoned by spilled crude. ... We no longer make sales because people are avoiding fish. In fact, fishermen no longer go to sea to fish. The fish we sell now are from trawlers which operate outside Nigerian waters. "Oil operations in this area are really affecting our business negatively and that was why women joined the youths to protest the frequent oil spills."

The article refers to... "the May 1 oil spillage from the Qua Iboe Oil Fields, which polluted water in the communities. Mobil Producing Nigeria (MPN), a subsidiary of U.S. Oil firm, ExxonMobil, had, in a statement signed by its Executive Director, Mrs Gloria Essien-Danner, confirmed that oil was leaking from the company's pipeline." - Original source - 14 June 2010

In an earlier article from the same source quotes the oil producer:

Although, the oil major admitted there was a reported spill in the high sea which later flew to the shoreline, it said that "there is no hydrocarbon release from MPN operations" as subsequent tests of the sample collected showed that it was not consistent with MPN crude.

- Original source -

We witnessed the slow poisoning of the waters of this country and the destruction of vegetation and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum operations. But since the inception of the oil industry in Nigeria, more than twenty-five years ago, there has been no concerned and effective effort on the part of the government, let alone the oil operators, to control environmental problems associated with the industry.

- Websearch 6/15/2010, Original source, quoted in Greenpeace International's Shell Shocked, 11

The environmental and economic effects of oil production activities in Nigeria have been summarized by Chrisotpher O. Orubo et als as follows:

The ultimate economic effect of environmental impacts of oil production activities is to catalyse a reduction in the standard of living of people in the area of primary activities. The economic effects are extensive, and include dislocation of traditional economic activities and associated livelihood pursuits as well as danger to human health. Expectedly, all of the economic effects translate to pecuniary effects, which can be measured in terms of reduced real incomes and the loss of alternative uses of resources consumed by oil companies (Ekuerhare and Orubu, 1996).

We can refer to the effects described above as first round effects. There are also the second round effects, with longer-term welfare implications. Each round of environment–degrading activity tends not only to increase the incidence of poverty among vulnerable groups such as farmers and fishermen and their dependants, but also involves intensified exploitation of existing natural resources, such as timber and non-timber forest resources. For example, pollution of major fishing waters leads to massive exploitation of marginal fishing waters. The pressure on land as a result of pollutive oil industry activities also leads to the exploitation of marginal farmlands, over-farming and deforestation, all of which result in a new wave of environmental degradation. In this way, a kind of vicious circle relationship between environmental degradation and poverty incidence is created, particularly in the face of inappropriate compensation programmes of oil companies, which do not provide for alternative sources of livelihood for deprived land owners.

Material Safety Data Sheets for Crude Oil and Refined Heating Oil Products

Contamination of seafood may also involve not just crude oil (MSDS Sheet for CRUDE OIL) spilled in an area, but chemicals used as dispersants (MSDS Sheets for OIL DISPERSANTS) as well.


Research on Contamination of Seafood by Oil Spills & Other Sources

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