Norway Asks Oil Companies to Help Solve the Mystery High-Level Offshore Toxic Waste

Norway's farmed salmons are displayed at a supermarket, on December 21, 2012 at the Kremlin-Bicetre, outside Paris. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

The Norwegian Environment Agency has asked oil industry players to uncover the source of high levels of toxins in fish. There are fears that decades of illegal dumping of plastic waste could be responsible.

According to press reports, the Norwegian Environmental Agency has contacted oil companies Equinor, Aker BP and Wintershall Dea to help uncover the abnormally high levels of mercury and other toxins among some species in the Norwegian Sea. Gas system operator Gassco and geo-data specialist Fugro will also help in unraveling a mystery that is not suspected of involving wrongdoing by any oil or gas company.

50,000 Barrels of Toxic Waste

According to the Norwegian authorities, the high levels of mercury, dioxin and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) in halibut from the Sklinnabanken fishing ground may be related leakage from barrels of toxic waste dumped in this area in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, the Norwegian authorities intercepted a Dutch vessel while on its way to dump barrels containing 600 tons of toxic chlorinated aliphatic hydrocarbons from a Dutch plastics producer at Sklinnabanken.

After this was uncovered, the practice stopped. However, the Norwegian Environment Agency has, after reviewing media reports from the 1970s, estimated that as much as 50,000 barrels of toxic waste from Europe’s plastics industry might have been dumped on the Norwegian continental shelf. A spokesperson for the agency said it had contacted the mentioned oil industry players but added that so far, no dumped material has been found in the area.

Banned In the United States

Fish can concentrate extremely high levels of chemical residues in their flesh and fat, as much as 9 million times that of the water they live in. Mercury isn’t the only dangerous toxin in fish flesh—people who eat fish also ingest PCBs. As big fish eat little fish, PCBs become more concentrated in their flesh. Fish-eaters who consume these dangerous chemicals suffer from increased cancer risk and may experience decreased mental functioning and damaged sexual health.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are synthetic chemicals used in hydraulic fluids and oils and electrical capacitors and transformers. These toxins were banned in the United States in 1979 for use in all but completely enclosed areas, but heavy past usage has resulted in environmental contamination worldwide, especially in fish. PCBs are dangerous because they act like hormones, wreaking havoc on the nervous system and contributing to various illnesses, including cancer, infertility, and other sexual problems.

Formed When DDT Breaks Down

Fish-eaters in one study had high levels of lead, mercury, and DDE in their blood. Even low concentrations of lead can cause mental retardation and physical disability in children. Higher levels can lead to coma, convulsions, and death.

Dr. Susan L. Schantz of the University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine has been studying fish-eaters since 1992 and has found that people who ate 24 pounds or more of fish per year have problems with learning and memory. She discovered that fish-eaters often have high levels of PCBs in their blood and thus have difficulty recalling information they learned just 30 minutes earlier. Says Schantz: 

“It had been assumed that mature adults are less susceptible [to PCBs] than are developing fetuses. This may not be the case.” Some fish-eaters in her study had high levels of lead, mercury, and DDE (formed when DDT breaks down) in their blood. Thirty even low concentrations of lead can cause mental retardation and physical disability in children. Higher levels can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, and even death.”

Fish Farming Making Fish Flesh Even More Toxic

Because salmon are becoming so rare in the wild, 80 percent of America’s salmon consumed come from massive fish farms. These farmed fish are actually fed the flesh of wild-caught fish. It takes 5 pounds of commercially caught fish (all species that would not be saleable to humans) to create 1 pound of farmed fish. All that commercially netted fish comes with heavy doses of toxins, which then concentrate in the flesh of farmed fish, making it the most toxic thing humans routinely put into their bodies. 

Farmed salmon also has twice the fat of wild salmon, and this fat collects even more toxins. Tests on farmed salmon purchased at U.S. grocery stores show that these fish are contaminated with even more PCBs than their wild counterparts. The health consequences of exposure to all the toxins found in salmon can be grave—the Environmental Working Group estimates that 800,000 people in the U.S. face an excess lifetime cancer risk from eating farmed salmon.