Most of what we know about the potential health effects of these chemicals comes from high-dose laboratory animal studies or in people exposed by accidents or in the workplace. Chemicals that cause health effects in laboratory animals and people after high level exposures may also increase the risk of effects in people exposed to lower levels for long periods of time.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a mixture of man-made chemicals that were used in many commercial and electrical products until their manufacture was banned in the mid-1970s. PCBs are persistent in the environment and accumulate in the fat of fish and other animals. Thus, PCBs still remain a fish and game contaminant.
Studies of women and their children show a link between elevated levels of PCBs in their bodies and slight effects on their children's birth weight, short-term memory and learning ability. A study of older adults (49-86 years old) who ate fish containing PCBs suggests that higher PCB exposure is associated with decreased memory and learning. Other studies have suggested a link between increased PCB exposure and effects on the human reproductive system, including changes in sperm quality, time to pregnancy and menstrual cycles. These studies suggest that the effects were caused by PCBs, but other factors may have played a role too. Some PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals exposed to high levels of the chemical throughout their lifetime. Studies of workers exposed to PCBs raise concerns that these chemicals can cause cancer in people, but the information is not adequate to prove that this is the case.
Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally in the environment and can also get into the environment from human activity. Most of the mercury that accumulates in fish is an organic form called methylmercury. Fish that live longer and eat other fish tend to have more methylmercury than do smaller fish.
Methylmercury can cause effects on the nervous system. Exposure to methylmercury is more of a concern for children and unborn babies because their nervous systems are still developing. People who ate fish that contained large amounts of methylmercury had permanent damage to the brain, kidneys and fetus. Some research on populations that eat a large amount of fish finds that methylmercury can affect children's memory, attention and language development. Other research on a different population that also eats large amounts of fish has not found such effects.
Chlordane, DDT, dieldrin and mirex are all man-made organochlorine chemicals that were once used as insecticides. Mirex was also used as a flame retardant in a number of materials. Although these chemicals have been banned in the United States since the 1970s (with the exception that chlordane and dieldrin, which were allowed for termite control until the 1980s), they are very persistent in the environment and accumulate in the fat of fish and other animals. Thus, these chemicals can still be found as fish and game contaminants.
Chlordane, DDT, dieldrin and mirex can cause effects on the nervous system and the liver in laboratory animals. Chlordane, DDT and dieldrin have also caused effects on the nervous system of people. Some of these chemicals can also cause effects on the kidneys, the thyroid gland and on reproduction in animals and people. The levels of exposure that caused these effects are typically much higher than would likely occur from eating fish containing these chemicals. Chlordane, DDT, dieldrin and mirex also caused cancer in laboratory animals exposed to high levels over their lifetimes. Whether these chemicals cause cancer in people is not known.
Dioxins (polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins or PCDDs) and furans (polychlorinated dibenzofurans or PCDFs) are two closely related families of chemicals. Some dioxins and furans are unwanted byproducts of manufacturing and also come from the smoke or ash of motor vehicles, municipal waste incinerators, wood fires and trash burning. Dioxins and furans are very persistent in the environment and accumulate in the fat of fish and other animals. Thus, these chemicals are fish contaminants.
Most of what we know about dioxins and furans come from one particular dioxin, but many of these chemicals are likely to cause similar health effects. Dioxins and furans have been associated with causing skin effects as well as changes in reproductive hormone levels and indicators of liver function in people. Weaker evidence suggests that these chemicals can also cause a number of other health effects in people. Such effects include an association between a mother's exposure and effects on her child's nervous system, hormone levels and immune system. Some dioxins have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals exposed to high levels of the chemicals throughout their lifetime. The available human studies provide strong evidence of an association between exposure to one dioxin (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) and cancer.
Cadmium is a naturally-occurring metal found in small amounts in soil and water. Cadmium is used in many industrial operations and in consumer products such as paints, plastics and batteries. Cadmium also occurs in foods (especially fruits, vegetables and cereals) and tobacco. Cadmium can also be found in fish and shellfish from some waters.
Cadmium accumulates in the body, mainly in the kidneys, with continued exposure. Some people with long-term cadmium exposure have had effects on their kidneys, bones and blood.
Lead can be found in fishing tackle (especially sinkers and jig heads).
Lead can cause health problems when it builds up in the body. Because the unborn baby and young child are at the greatest risk, it is particularly important for pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children to minimize their lead exposures. Lead poisoning can slow a child's physical growth and mental development and can cause behavior and other nervous system problems, reproductive problems, kidney and liver damage, blindness and even death in both adults and children.
To reduce exposure to the lead in these products, you should:
Consider non-lead alternatives. NYS DOH recommends that non-lead fishing sinkers and lures be used whenever possible. NYS DEC encourages anglers to use non-lead alternatives for sinkers and jig heads to reduce the risk of lead poisoning to birds. New York State law prohibits the sale of lead fishing sinkers (including "split shot") weighing one-half ounce or less.
More information is provided on the NYS DEC website.
For more information on the NYS DOH Fish Advisory please visit their website NYS DOH Fish Advisory
Last updated June 16, 2022