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PCB Information
Frequently Asked Questions about PCBs found in trout at PA State Fish Hatcheries
Pennsylvania has issued a general, statewide health advisory for recreationally caught sport fish. That advice is that you eat no more than one meal (one-half pound) per week of sport fish caught in the state’s waterways. This general advice was issued to protect against eating large amounts of fish that have not been tested or that may contain unidentified contaminants.

The statewide advisory does not apply to fish from commercial sources, including private fish farms, restaurants and markets.

PCB MoleculeSome fish from some waters are subject to different consumption advisories.
[Current consumption advisories]

Trout stocked from Pennsylvania state hatcheries are safe to catch, safe to handle, and safe to eat in moderation in accordance with consumption advisories.

Consumption advisories are designed to be protective of pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children, as well as those who consume larger quantities of hatchery trout. Consuming fish with the low levels of PCBs found in the PFBC hatchery trout is of less concern to men and women beyond childbearing age, but they may wish to follow this consumption advice.

Q.  What consumption advisories apply to Pennsylvania state hatchery trout?

Trout stocked from Pennsylvania state hatcheries are subject to the statewide one-meal-per-week consumption advisory. In addition brook trout raised for Fish and Boat Commission stocking at the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery and rainbow trout stocked in Pennsylvania lakes under contract with Tellico Trout Farms were tested. No additional advisories apply to state hatchery trout or trout being stocked by or behalf of the Fish and Boat Commission. These hatchery trout are safe to catch, safe to handle and save to eat in moderation in accordance with this consumption advice. 

All sportfish taken from Pennsylvania waters by recreational angling are subject to a one-meal-per-week consumption advisory. This advisory applies to fish stocked from state hatcheries and caught from Pennsylvania waters. This advisory applies to state hatchery fish when stocked in Pennsylvania waters. It applies to all contaminants, including mercury and PCBs.

Q.  What are PCBs?

PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls. These are a group of man-made chemicals that were  used as lubricants and coolants in a variety of industrial and electrical products and applications, such as capacitors, transformers, turbines, etc. The manufacture of PCBs in the United States was discontinued in 1977. PCBs are very persistent, and even though their manufacture was discontinued more than 20 years ago, trace levels of PCBs remain throughout our environment. PCBs are a group of 209 individual chemicals, known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, that were marketed under various trade names.  The most common name for PCBs found in the environment is Aroclor. Everyone is exposed to some PCBs, and they are found everywhere. They have even been found in penguins in Antarctica. There are several possible sources of exposure to PCBs including drinking water with PCBs, breathing air with PCBs and occupational health exposures. The most common source of exposure is from eating foods that may contain some level of PCBs. Such foods include fish, eggs, red meat, poultry, milk and cheese. Click here to see "PCBs 101" from the U.S. EPA.

Q. How should you clean and cook fish that might contain PCBs?

PCBs and most other organic contaminants usually build up in a fish's fat deposits and just underneath the skin. By removing the skin and fat before cooking, you can reduce the levels of these chemicals.
One of the best ways to reduce your exposure, and get a more enjoyable meal, is to fillet the fish:

  1. Prepare the fish by making a cut along the back, near the dorsal fin.
  2. Cut the length of the fish, working toward the tail and belly–but don’t cut into the belly. Let the rib bones guide your knife blade to get the fullest fillets.
  3. At the tail, don’t cut the fillet off. Guide the knife blade between the skin and the flesh.
  4. Flip the fish over and repeat.

You can take other steps to reduce chemicals in the fish you eat:

  • Remove all skin.
  • Slice off fat belly meat along the bottom of the fish.
  • Cut away any fat above the fish’s backbone.
  • Cut away the V-shaped wedge of fat along the lateral line on each side of the fish.
  • Bake or broil trimmed fish on a rack or grill so the remaining fat drips away.
  • Discard any drippings. Do not eat them or use them for cooking other foods.

Illustration showing how to clean fish

Q. What are fish consumption advisories?

Pennsylvania uses consumption advisories, based on Great Lakes Consumption Advisory Protocols, to inform anglers about how many fish they may wish to consume. Consumption advisories are designed to inform and not alarm people who consume fresh fish. They are an informational tool for Pennsylvania agencies to provide information about how many  fish they may wish to eat and how often they may wish to eat them. Consumption advisories provide guidance to individuals or segments of the population at greater risk from exposure to contaminants in fish. Advisories are not regulatory standards, but are recommendations intended to provide additional information of particular interest to high-risk groups such as pregnant women and young children. These advisories apply only to recreationally caught sport fish in Pennsylvania, not commercial fish. The federal Food and Drug Administration establishes the legal standards for contaminants in food sold commercially, including fish.

Fish subject to a consumption advisory are safe to catch, safe to handle and safe to eat in moderation. Consumption advisories tell consumers of fish, including those in the more sensitive populations, that it they can consume certain levels of fish without worry. Consumers have more information about these fish than any other stocked fish in the country.

Q.  How are fish consumption advisories targeted?

Consumption advisories are geared to provide advice as to consumption patterns for members of the segments of the population that might be at some risk to possible chemicals in fish, such as pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children, as well as persons who regularly consume large quantities of hatchery trout. They are based on assumptions that persons consume fish with the same levels of contaminants from similar sources over long periods of time or their entire lifetimes. Women of childbearing age and children should try to space fish meals out according to the advisory tables. The human body can get rid of some contaminants over time. Spacing the meals out helps prevent the contaminants from building up to harmful levels in the body.

Men and women beyond their childbearing years face fewer health risks from chemicals. Studies have shown that sport anglers consume more fish than other population groups. Anglers should consider a consumption advisory as part of their dietary efforts to reduce total exposure to contaminants over long periods of time or their entire lifetimes. Adult men and women beyond childbearing age need not make special efforts to space out their meals of fresh fish, but they may wish to consider limiting the total number of meals they eat during the year. Many of those meals can be eaten during a few months of the year. If you are an average size individual and most of the fish you eat are in the "One Meal a Month" category, you should not exceed 12 meals (24 average size stocked trout) per year. If they are in the "One Meal a Week" category, you should not exceed 52 meals(104 average size stocked trout)  per year.

One meal is assumed to be one-half pound of fish (weight before cooking) for a 150 pound person. A half pound of trout ordinarily would be comprised of four (4) fillets taken from two average size stocked trout. (Remember, when dealing with larger fish species, the number of fish per meal will vary.) The meal advice is equally protective for larger people who eat larger meals, and smaller people who eat smaller meals.

Q. What are the Great Lakes Fish Consumption Advisory Protocols?

Pennsylvania and the other Great Lakes states use a way of issuing fish consumption advisories which provides specific meal advice for fish tested. The Great Lakes risk assessment based advisory levels for PCBs in sport fish tissue are as follows:

  • Group 1 (No Advisory): raw fish filet with 0 - 0.05 ppm PCB
  • Group 2 (1 meal/week - 52 meals/year): raw fish filet with 0.06 - 0.21 ppm PCB
  • Group 3 (1 meal/month - 12 meals/year): raw fish filet with 0.21 - 1.0 ppm PCB
  • Group 4 (6 meal/year): raw fish filet with 1.1 - 1.9 ppm PCB
  • Group 5 (No consumption) raw fish filet with >1.9 ppm PCB (FDA tolerance level).*
    • Note: For hatchery fish, different environmental, consumption and exposure considerations meant that, prior to the issuance of the statewide blanket one-meal-per-week advisory, no advisories were issued for hatchery trout unless PCB levels exceed 0.1 ppm. With the statewide one-meal-per-week advisory in effect since 2001, no hatchery specific consumption advisories are issued unless the levels of PCBs exceed 0.21 ppm (one-meal-per-month).

Pennsylvania is the only state annually to test its state hatchery fish and announce consumption advisories for them using Great Lakes protocols.

Q.  Are the Pennsylvania consumption advisories consistent with the FDA tolerance or action levels?

Yes.  Consumption advisories are consistent with FDA levels. They use the same "DO NOT EAT" level as the FDA and extend meal-specific advice to fish containing lower levels of PCBs.

You may visualize the FDA tolerance levels for PCBs in commercial fish as a traffic signal with just a red lens and a green lens. If the PCB levels are below 2 ppm, the light is green, and there are no warnings about eating the fish. If the levels are 2 ppm or higher, the light is red, and consumers are advised NOT to eat the fish. 

Consumption advisories are akin to a traffic light with a red lens, a large yellow lens that glows at various intensities, and a green lens. Under PCB consumption advisories, the red light comes on at exactly the same time as it does under FDA tolerance levels (2 ppm). What's different is that the yellow light comes on for PCB levels between 1.9 and 0.06 ppm, and the green light does not come on until the levels are below 0.06 ppm. 

Q. Are PCBs present in PFBC hatchery trout?

Yes. Some very low levels of PCBs are present in just about all wild and PFBC hatchery trout in Pennsylvania. State hatchery trout, when stocked in Pennsylvania waters, and all other recreationally-caught sportfish in Pennsylvania, are subject to a blanket one-meal-per-week consumption advisory.

Trout are stocked for recreational angling, and some anglers harvest fish to eat them. Trout are not stocked as a foodstuff: If they were sold as foodstuffs in interstate commerce, they would be well within the applicable FDA safety standards.

The stocking program is designed to provide fishing opportunities. Surveys show that anglers harvest no trout on about 60% of their fishing trips and two or fewer trout about 80% of the time. Most anglers do not regularly bring home large quantities of stocked trout (the daily creel limit is 5) to eat as meals.

Consumption advisories are information tools, not regulatory or safety restrictions. They are intended to inform, not alarm. They are designed to be protective of pregnant women, women of childbearing age, children, and anglers who regularly consume fish in larger quantities over long periods of time. Consuming fish with the low levels of PCBs found in the PFBC hatchery trout is of less concern to men and women beyond childbearing age, but they may also wish to follow this consumption advice. The whole subject of risk assessment and consumption advisories is quite complicated. The Great Lakes Protocols were developed after years of study to provide information to anglers who regularly consume fish from similar sources with similar levels of chemicals over their lifetimes.

For purposes of consumption advisories, a meal for an average size individual is the approximate equivalent of four fillets from two trout. The existence of consumption advisories on some stocked trout does not affect anyone’s fishing opportunities. Consumption advice is designed to inform people about consumption patterns and not to discourage people from participating in wholesome, safe outdoor recreation. 

Q. What is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tolerance level for PCBs in fish?

The FDA tolerance (action) level for PCBs in commercial fish currently is two parts per million (2 ppm). The FDA has established tolerance levels for PCBs in foodstuffs, including fish, in interstate commerce. The FDA limits are used determine whether or not the food is safe to consume over an extended period of time; they do not include advice on limiting the number of meals of particular fish. The levels of PCBs found in trout stocked from state hatcheries are many times less than the FDA tolerance levels for PCBs in fish.

Q.  What has the state done to help determine the cause of low levels of PCBs in hatchery trout?

We have done a great deal to look at the issue of PCBs in state hatchery trout. The PFBC undertook a scientific research project in conjunction with Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to look at issues related to PCBs in hatchery fish in a controlled feeding study.  

Additional studies were also conducted at Huntsdale FCS. The PFBC has adjusted production -- and discontinued trout production in one series of raceways -- as a result of these studies.  

Q.  When were the results of the controlled feeding study on accumulation of PCBs in hatchery trout be released?

The study conducted by the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the Pennsylvania State University were released in January 2002. The lead investigator on the project briefed the House Game and Fisheries Committee on the study on December 4, 2001.

Q.  How did the briefing summarize the results of the study?

  • With feed that had 0.126 ppm (126 ppb) PCBs (standard, commercially-available fish food) concentrations in trout fillets after 6 months did not exceed  0.10 ppm (100 ppb).
  • PCB concentrations in fillets were positively related to PCB concentrations in feed.
  • PCB concentrations in different feed formulas had no effect on growth of trout.
  • PCB concentrations in fillets stabilized at new levels after 1 month of feeding.
  • Lipid stores in fillets continually increased during the 12-month feeding trial and PCB concentrations in fillets were generally related to lipid content.
  • PCBs were detected at very low levels in the source water at the test site.
  • Preliminary analyses suggest that uptake of PCBs from Benner Spring source water was not important.
  • There was no indication that the hatchery infrastructure at the test site contributed additional PCBs to the water.
  • PCB uptake was primarily from the feed and trout assimilated a large a large proportion (87%) of PCBs in the feed.

Q.  Does this mean that PCBs in fish food is not a factor in PCBs in hatchery trout?

Not at all. The study showed that the levels of PCBs in fish food is the major factor related to the levels of PCBs in fish fillets. The study showed that a diet of commercially-available fish food that complies with FDA standards for fish food should not result in the need for any additional consumption advisories. (Note: Pennsylvania has a blanket one-meal-per-week advisory for all recreationally-caught sportfish. Therefore no additional advisories would be triggered unless the PCB levels in the fish fillets were at 0.2 ppm (200ppb) or above. The study showed the fillets from fish fed the standard diet had PCB concentrations of under 0.1 ppm (100ppb).

Q.  How do FDA standards figure into this?  Doesn't Pennsylvania use Great Lakes protocols for determining consumption advisories?

A principal focus of the study was to show what levels of PCBs would show up in fillets of trout fed fish food, which complied with regulatory PCB limits for fish food (0.2 ppm of PCBs), over a period of months. The study also examined the levels of PCBs that would be shown with different diets.

The federal Food and Drug Administration establishes tolerance levels (safety action levels) for PCBs in fish food.  Pennsylvania follows the FDA levels for PCBs in fish food. This is a regulatory standard. Under FDA standards, finished feed may not have more than 0.2 ppm of PCBs.

The FDA also sets regulatory standards for acceptable levels of PCBs in fish sold as foodstuffs in interstate commerce.  The FDA tolerance level for fish sold as food is 2 ppm of PCBs. Pennsylvania uses the FDA levels for fish sold in stores and those raised by commercial hatcheries. 

For recreationally-caught sportfish, including state hatchery fish when stocked, Pennsylvania uses the Great Lakes Consumption Advisory Protocols. Consumption advisories are not regulatory in nature; they provide advice to anglers about how many sportfish they may wish to eat. 

Q.  What do we know about consumption patterns for state hatchery trout?

The results of a statistically-valid random survey of Pennsylvania trout anglers showed that the number who reported eating more than 104 such fish per year (one-meal-per-week) was less than one-half of one percent.1Only about 5% of all trout anglers ate more than 24 stocked trout a year, which is the equivalent of a one meal per month. Remember that, applying the Great Lakes Consumption Advisories to hatchery trout, average sized persons could safely consume, over a period of months, 104 trout if subject to a one-meal-per-week advisory. For the vast majority of trout anglers and their families the levels of PCBs reported in PFBC hatchery fish appear to have no impact on their consumption. They say they eat far fewer stocked trout than would be advisable even using the Great Lakes protocols.

Q. How do fish consumption advisories compare with health warnings?

It's important to keep consumption advisories in perspective. Consumption advisories are informational tools. Consumption advisories are not the same thing as health warnings. Consumers are familiar with warning labels on beer and other alcohol products and cigarettes and tobacco. These warnings are much stronger in form and content than consumption advisories. Consumption advisories are not required by any regulations.  Fish that are subject to consumption advisories are legal to catch, harvest and eat. Speed limits on the highway and creel limits for fish are examples of regulatory limits.

Q. What are the health benefits of eating fish?

When properly prepared, fish provide a diet high in protein and low in saturated fats. Many doctors suggest that eating a half-pound of fish each week is helpful in preventing heart disease. Almost any kind of fish may have real health benefits when it replaces a high fat source of protein in the diet. A person can get the health benefits of fish and reduce unwanted contaminant's by following consumption advisories and cleaning and cooking their catch in ways that reduce fatty tissue.

Q. What are the health impacts of consuming fish with PCBs?

The PA Department of Health provides detailed health information about this and other subjects. Long lasting contaminant's such as PCBs, chlordane, and mercury build up over time. It may take months or years of regularly eating contaminated fish to build up amounts that are a health concern. Women of childbearing age and children, as well as people who regularly eat hatchery trout or other sport fish, may have concerns about contaminants that build up over time. Health problems which may result from the contaminant's found in fish range from small changes in health that are hard to detect to birth defects and cancer. Mothers who eat highly contaminated fish for many years before becoming pregnant may have children who are slower to develop and learn. The meal advice in consumption advisories is intended to protect children from these potential developmental problems. Adults are less likely to have health problems at the low levels that affect children. The human body gets rid of some contaminants over time. Consumption advisories for PCBs are based on effects other than cancer. PCBs have not been positively identified as a human carcinogen.2 The documented effects are mainly neurobehavioral and developmental.

Q.  What is the background of the Great Lakes Protocol?

The procedure used by the Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health (PA agencies) to make decisions about whether or not to issue fish consumption advice is called the "Protocol for a Uniform Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory." This protocol was developed for PCBs by the Great Lakes Sport Fish Consumption Advisory Task Force -- a group of public health and natural resource agency specialists from the eight states bordering the Great Lakes -- as a result of a charge provided in 1986 by the Great Lake Governor's Toxic Agreement. The final protocol has gone through extensive national and international peer review before it was published in September 1993.

The Pennsylvania agencies that serve on a fish consumption advisories working group have agreed that this public health risk assessment-based approach is appropriate to provide advice and information to those who choose to consume sport fish that have a known amount of PCBs. Although this protocol was developed specifically for PCBs in Great Lakes sport fishery, the Pennsylvania agencies concluded that it is a useful guideline to provide advice and information to anglers about fish in all waters in the Commonwealth that have been identified to contain sport fish with elevated levels of PCBs. The protocol was implemented in 1996 for Lake Erie fish. The first listing of statewide consumption advisories for PCBs based on this protocol was published in the 1998 Summary of Fishing Regulations and Laws.

Q.  What do other states do about this issue?

We know of no other state that regularly tests hatchery-stocked trout to detect the very low levels of PCBs reported in Pennsylvania state hatchery trout. Other states have approached the issue of consumption advisories and warnings for sport fishes in different manners. With the advice of the Department of Health and DEP, Pennsylvania uses the Great Lakes protocols for sports fish taken from waters with repeated exposure to chemical sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken an approach to PCBs that is even more cautious.

Q. Can you tell whether a fish has PCBs in it by look or taste?

No. At the very low levels of PCBs involved found in any of the PFBC hatchery trout, there would be no external evidence of the presence of the substance and the taste and smell of the fish would not be affected.

Q.  Do PCBs in PFBC stocked trout dissipate once they are stocked in the streams?

These levels might diminish over time, but since PCBs accumulate in tissue over a period of time, they take a similarly long time to dissipate. The trout stocked from PFBC fish culture stations are fully-grown adult fish. Unless they have major growth in body weight after being stocked or they lose a lot of fatty tissue, it is unlikely that the amount (a fraction of one part per million) of PCBs in their tissue will change significantly during the relatively short time they remain in the streams into which they are stocked.

Q.  Do the test results mean that PFBC hatchery trout are somehow unsafe?

Not at all. PFBC-stocked trout are safe to catch, safe to handle and safe to eat in moderation, using consumption advisories to guide consumption levels.

Q.  Why do Commonwealth agencies tell consumers that they should limit consumption of stocked fish when most stocked fish have levels of PCBs well below levels where any consumption advice is warranted?

All recreationally-caught sportfish are subject to a one-meal per week statewide consumption advisory, and this includes state-stocked trout. Consumption statements are based upon the best available information. It is prudent to err on the side of caution and provide information to anglers based on the best available information at the time we receive it. Commonwealth agencies do not want to unduly alarm people. We don't want to discourage participation in angling, which is a safe and wholesome sport. We don't want to discourage consumption of fish, which  is a valuable component of a healthy diet. At the same time, we recognize that PCBs are present in some fish. Consumers are exposed to PCBs from numerous sources, not just hatchery trout. Consumption advisories are based on a presumption of a lifetime of eating fish with relatively uniform levels of chemicals. The advisories are not based on a consumer eating just a few servings. The advisories are focused on pregnant women, women of childbearing age and small children, who may have particular concerns about consuming PCBs over an extended period of time. A goal of the consumption advisory effort is to reduce overall PCB consumption from all sources.

Q.  What testing guidelines applied to testing of spring stocked trout?

The agencies work under the guidelines established by the House Game and Fisheries Committee at its October 19, 1999 meeting. These guidelines provide:

  • PCB tests be conducted at least two months prior to the beginning of trout stocking
  • Results be released at least one month in advance of the upcoming trout season
  • The annual schedule of PCB tests and results will be announced to the public
  • The testing facility  should complete PCB testing by a certain date on an annual schedule
  • The  testing will be done by a private agency or DEP with specific deadlines for completion
  • Both the House and Senate Game and Fisheries Committees and all four chairmen will receive results
1. The vast majority of stocked trout consumers in the survey were male (89%).

2. Consumption advisories for PCBs are primarily based on effects other than cancer. The available human studies have limitations preventing scientists from drawing definite conclusions about PCB exposure and cancer risk in people. Animal studies show that PCBs have caused cancer in animals. Animal studies suggest that PCB mixtures containing 60% (Aroclor 1260) chlorine by weight, administered orally to rats, are liver carcinogens in the rats. Animal studies with Aroclor 1254 and other lower chlorinated PCBs indicate that these PCBs have weak carcinogenicity. Any human risk of cancer from eating fish with PCBs cannot be predicted with certainty. Cancer currently affects about one in every four people by the age of 70, primarily due to smoking, diet and hereditary risk factors. Exposure to contaminants in the fish you eat may not increase your cancer risk at all.  Consumption advisories are based on assumptions of relatively consistent consumption over a person's lifetime. By following them, a person may minimize exposure and reduce whatever cancer risk is associated with those contaminants. Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methods, it is estimated that approximately one additional cancer case may develop in 10,000 people eating with levels of contaminants at FDA tolerance levels (2 ppm) over their lifetimes.

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