Toxins in oily fish break safety limits

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More than a third of Britons are eating "healthy" oily fish that contain levels of cancer-causing chemicals that break new safety limits.

The European Commission will set new safety limits this Thursday on the amounts of toxic PCB and dioxins in foods which are five times lower than existing British levels.

The most heavily contaminated foods are oily fishes such as Scottish farmed salmon and cod liver oils.

Exposure to these toxins has been linked to cancers, hormone disruption, male and female infertility, and damage to the human immune system. A team of German scientists revealed further evidence in The Lancet last week that PCB exposure also damages the intelligence of infants.

Miriam Jacobs, an expert at the University of Surrey who found high PCB levels in Scottish salmon in a study backed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, said: "There are very serious health implications from exposure to these chemicals. They stay in our bodies for most of our lives. The biggest burden is in newborn or young children."

Strict new limits will increase pressure in Britain for more rigorous testing of groceries. The Food Standards Agency estimated that the new regulations mean that roughly a third of Britons could be exceeding the recommended levels.

However, the agency claims the European Commission has over-reacted, since emissions into the environment and human exposure levels have fallen substantially since the early 1990s. PCBs, once widely used in electrical equipment, engine oils and some paints, are now illegal.