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Swedish Fish: Less Candy, More Cancer

Hey, readers! First off, we would like to issue an apology for publishing this post a day late. Our team has been at this year’s FunnelHacker Live expo and conference at Walt Disney World. The annual expo hosts dozens of innovative organizations and hundreds of entrepreneurs each year. Last night we were treated with an early release screening of Operation Underground Railroad’s new film, “Operation Toussaint” highlighting OUR’s crackdowns and raids on human traffickers and child slavery rings in Haiti. The film is set to be released within the next two months and is an absolute must seeSeriously, OUR is doing some of the most heroic work in 15 countries, and its founder Tim Ballard is the closest thing to a real-world Captain America you could ever meet.

Now then, on with the post…

It’s an understatement to say that water is the foundation of all life on Earth. Without readily available sources of fresh water from rivers, lakes, springs, creeks and the like, human civilization today would likely be nomadic as it was before we learned to harness the power of nature and build tools which allowed us to create secured settlements. Throughout history and across the globe, humans of all colors, creeds, and ancestries have relied on fresh water for means of food, drink, trade, and travel. Indeed, access to fresh water helped build our societies as we know them today.

But what happens when a nation’s water supply – the essence of life and economy – becomes unusable? Centuries ago such a problem would have spelled disaster. In today’s world it still may, however advances in science, technology, and engineering allow us to mitigate the potential problems associated with this. To an extent.

The state of California is home to over 35 million people and headquarters to thousands of businesses and organizations. Spanning roughly two-thirds of the United State’s Pacific coast, the upper third of California maintains a mild Mediterranean climate while the lower two-thirds (and 80% of CA’s population) are more dry and arid with significantly less annual rainfall. In 2014, a statewide drought brought in new legislation under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) which hopes to see more groundwater basins and sub-basins reach sustainability by 2040.

In May of 2017 and again in early 2018, Cape Town in South Africa was under threat of running out of fresh water entirely due to long dry seasons and a lack of predicted rainfall. South African officials are reportedly now planning for “Day Zero” to hit as early as July 2018. As of February, Cape Town’s reservoirs of fresh water were only at 26% capacity and officials have threatened cutting off the taps when they reach 13.5%.

The Middle East is another region with scarce access to fresh water, be it from rain or groundwater reserves. Over 80% of the region’s water is used for agriculture but increased rates of desertification leave portions of agricultural land unavailable for use year after year. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported the highest consumption of water in the world in 2005 and are on track to run out of fresh water by 2055 if more sustainable water management practices aren’t put into place.

Increasing desertification in the Middle East dries up fresh water and leaves less land for crops. (source:

These examples give us a glimpse of what happens when water runs out. But what about countries whose history, culture, traditions, and economies rely on abundant sources of fresh water?

During the Ice Age thousands of years ago, most of the region now known as Scandinavia was still covered by a giant cap of ice. As the Ice Age ended and the cap began to thaw it carved out thousands of freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams across the region. Such an abundance of freshwater, rich land for agricultural, and geographical borders with the Sea in turn led the people of the region to turn to fishing for a primary source of food. Rivers with access to saltwater bodies aided the people in navigating and establishing early trade routes with the European and Asian continents.

In particular regards to the region, the country of Sweden is home to over 90,000 freshwater lakes and over 13,500 kilometers of coastline with dozens of ports and harbors. Sweden’s southern tip also acts as a gateway between the Baltic and North Seas. One would assume that a country with such abundant water sources – one with a history of fishing for food as well as economy – would possess a large contemporary fishing industry. However, a 2014 census showed that Sweden’s fishing industry accounted for only 0.1% of the country’s total GDP despite claiming over 1,200 registered fishing vessels which “landed 170,000 tonnes of seafood worth 131 million Euro” in 2013.

Many of Sweden’s 90,000+ lakes contain islands attractive for recreational fishing. (source:

Recreational fishing is also a widely popular Swedish pastime and deeply rooted in Swedish culture. The country boasts some of the world’s prime fishing locations for anglers. Salmon, trout, pike, and arctic char are some of the most popular catches in the country. But with such a rich cultural history in fishing, how (or rather, why) is it that commercial fishing makes up less than one percent of Sweden’s GDP?

In 1988 the Swedish public became aware of Polychlorinated dibenzo-p­-dioxins (PCDD) and Polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF) emissions escaping into their air. PCDDs and PCDFs are more commonly referred to as dioxins, which we touched on briefly in our last blog post.

Dioxins are classified in the same category as PCBs regarding their toxicity and adverse effects they pose to human health and wildlife. They also tend to bioaccumulate in the food chain as PCBs do, making them extremely persistent and difficult to remove from the environment, yet alone destroy. In fact, PCDD and PCDF dioxins are most commonly created as a malignant, unwanted by-product of incinerating PCBs and other organic chlorinated compounds at high temperatures. They can also be found in waste water and sludge as a result of chlorinated runoff from simple household materials or cleaners. At this point, it is also worth mentioning that Sweden burns roughly 49% of their trash to create electrical energy. The toxic byproducts of doing so are then moved to hazardous waste landfills.

“The Filborna waste-to-energy plant in Helsingborg, Sweden.” (source: Dan Haugen, Midwest Energy News)

Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) spearheaded a three-year study from 2009-2012 researching the probably sources and solutions to dioxins found in fish within the Baltic Sea. The study focused on Baltic herring and other oil-rich, fat-heavy Baltic fish which contained levels of dioxins above the “safe” level as set by the European Union (EU). The study claims that atmospheric presence of dioxins (likely as a result of chlorinate incineration) are most likely to blame for the high dioxin levels, which have thankfully declined in recent years due in part to increased legislation on the matter.

However, the toxic equivalence levels (TEQ) of dioxins found in Baltic herring and other species of Swedish fish limit – if not outright prohibit – their use and sale as food or animal feed. Other oil-rich, fat-heavy fish species which are known to have shown higher concentrations of POPs such as PCBs and dioxin in the past include North Atlantic salmon and arctic char: both commonly found in Sweden, coveted by anglers, and in high customer demand for food. So although TEQ levels of dioxin in these fish have decreased in the last forty years, the amount of contamination remaining is still considered unsafe by the EU for international sale. Undoubtedly, this is a punch in the gut for Sweden’s fishing industry.

Dioxin levels in species of Swedish fish have decreased but still remain unsafe. (source:

The same study goes on to explain that “atmospheric desposition is believed to be the most major input pathway for dioxins to the Baltic Sea.” Atmospheric desposition is described as the process in which particles (precipitation, aerosols, gases, etc.) travel from the Earth’s atmosphere down to its surface. Taking this into consideration, the study’s remark that the presence of dioxins in the atmosphere being most likely to blame for high dioxin concentrations in the Baltic holds more stability. The largest question remaining that you’re likely asking by now is, “but where do they come from?” Unfortunately, the study continues, “the geographical origins of the dioxins in the Baltic air are not well known.” One interesting observation, however, was that concentration levels of dioxins were calculated to be higher during winter months. This tells us that increased levels of dioxins are more likely from non-industrial sources of combustion and point a finger towards sources of waste combustion. Despite being a more likely source, the data collected in this and a previous 2009 study could not pinpoint a specific source of atmospheric contamination.

Now, yes, few people without a Ph. D enjoys reading inconclusive, second-hand scientific data. What’s important to note in this study aren’t so much the “yes” or “no” answers, but the trends. We do know that higher concentrations of dioxins in the atmosphere collect during winter months. This consequently increases PCDD/PCDF concentration levels throughout the rest of the year, and while overall dioxin levels have decreased from industrial sources over the last forty years, “domestic sources [of dioxins in Europe] now account for more than one-third of total dioxin emissions…which can be as high as 70% in some regions.”

It’s not definitive, but at the very least this may give a discernible direction to look in regards to the source of Baltic dioxins. It also certainly doesn’t help that a lack of dioxin monitoring data/equipment/studies in the region, coupled with a less-than-satisfactory understanding of the sources to the Baltic’s dioxins leave the answers to these questions indiscernible for now. But this doesn’t mean that nothing is being done to try and solve the answers to these questions.

An article from summer of 2011 explains that, despite recorded unsafe levels of dioxins in Baltic fish species, the European Union granted both Sweden and Finland exemptions in order to allow the two countries to continue selling “herring, salmon, and other fish from the Baltic region that have high levels of both dioxin and the environmental pollutant PCB.”

Let that sink in for a second.

The European Union told Finland and Sweden nearly seven years ago that they knew these fish species contained unsafe levels of two of the most dangerous, deadly toxic chemicals in the world and that they could continue selling contaminated fish outside of their own domestic markets. In fact, the article says that Sweden was originally granted an exemption to this rule over fifteen years ago, in 2002.

Could you imagine the uproar from environmentally-engaged communities in the United States if the federal government or even a state government said, “we know these fish are unsafe to eat, but we will allow you to sell them for commercial consumption”?

Oh, wait. They already did last month in Delaware.

Thankfully, Sweden’s fishing industry decided to keep the exemption for the sake of public health, regardless of the EU’s efforts to help boost the Swedish commercial fishing industry so long as Sweden informed them annually that the country was informing women, young children, and risk management groups of the dangers in consuming PCBs and dioxins. Those of us who are more business-inclined may ask ourselves why Sweden would take such a massive economic hit to one of its most vital commercial industries, but the answer is simple: responsibility.

The aspects of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are broad but all equally important. (source:

In the United States, governments and businesses share a commonality in bearing responsibility to their citizens and customers respectively. While always easier said than done, it seems to be the case in Sweden and the problems they face with dioxin and PCB contamination. But perhaps this is an unfair comparison as Sweden’s landmass is less than one-twentieth than that of the United States with a population of roughly 10 million against the US’s population of 314 million. Undoubtedly, a smaller country with a smaller population allows for easier communication and flow between legislation and its citizens, and one narrative you hear echoed in the words of almost any Swede you meet is that of environmental conservation and responsibility.

As a quick disclaimer, we aren’t pointing the finger at the US or saying it is less responsible than other countries. This is because, so long as humans exist, so will human error. No one is perfect. Which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that in 2013 Sweden’s fishing industry came under fire when some 200 tons of contaminated Baltic salmon found its way into markets in mainland Europe. One French firm, Pecheries Nordiques, imported 103 tons of the contaminated salmon. CEO Francois Agussol said at the time, “no one told us it was illegal.”

The takeaway from this post, as always, is that addressing issues regarding toxic contamination are daunting tasks. But every task, no matter how difficult to tackle, becomes increasingly easier to overcome the more help you have. We all share one planet. It is the responsibility of all of us to work together to find answers and solutions to the problems we all face.

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For more information on some of the organizations and studies mentioned in this post, please see the following links:

European Commission of the EU


Swedish Environmental Protection Agency

Scientific Electronic Library Online

Want to learn more about ecoSPEARS? Our technology can help your community clean PCBs, PAHs, dioxins, and other contaminants from water and soil.

Email our team to let us know where we can help!

Read our study done with NASA and Golder Associates.

Read about the first ever field study done with SPEARS technology.

Interested in meeting our team? ecoSPEARS will be attending the following conferences and trade shows:

March 21-24, 2018: FunnelHacking Live 2018 Coronado Springs Resort Coronado Springs, Walt Disney World

April 8-12: Conference on Remediation of Chlorinated and Recalcitrant Compounds Palm Springs Convention Center 277 North Avenida Caballeros Palm Springs, CA, 92262

August 22-24, 2018: Georgia Environmental Conference Jekyll Island, GA

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