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Human exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls embodied in global fish trade


International food trade poses food safety risks through the collateral transport of contaminants that are harmful to human health. Persistent organic pollutants, such as the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) congener PCB-153, are consumed via fish intake traded globally, but the estimated daily intake and risk to human health are poorly understood. Using a food trade pathway model, a global-scale atmospheric persistent organic pollutant transport model and UN Global Comtrade data, high PCB exposure was identified in Western Europe. Marine fish exported from Europe to Sub-Saharan African countries account for 84% of PCB-153 consumer exposure. In contrast, European fish consumers face reduced exposure to PCB-153 by consuming marine fish imported from countries where PCB-153 concentrations are low. People consuming aquaculture-farmed salmon fed with marine ingredients from PCB-153-contaminated seawaters face a higher PCB exposure. Our findings demonstrate that global fish trade can exacerbate PCB-153 exposure in regions where environmental PCB-153 levels are low. This approach demonstrates how the exposure to harmful food contaminants distributed through global food trade can be predicted and quantified.

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Fig. 1: EDI of PCB-153 in marine fish species for an adult fish consumer and fractional contribution of PCB-153 to EDI in traded fish in 2012.
Fig. 2: PCB-153 EDI and fractional contribution of PCB-153 to EDI via fish consumption in 2012.
Fig. 3: Transfer of PCB-153 EDI via global fish trade among 14 global regions in 2012.
Fig. 4: PCB-153 EDI arising from international fish trade between 14 global regions in 2012.
Fig. 5: Fold change in PCB-153 EDI from traded fish consumption during global decline in PCB emission.
Fig. 6: PCB-153 EDI from farmed salmon consumption and international Atlantic salmon trade in 2012.

Data availability

Gridded fish catch data are available at the Sea Around Us ( Global fish trade data are available at UN Comtrade ( The authors declare that the other data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information.

Code availability

All datasets and model code generated and/or analysed that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request, or on the website of one of our laboratories (


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We thank F. Wania for his detailed and constructive internal review, D. Carpenter for useful discussions, G. Tsui for providing gridded production data for various marine fish by country from the Sea Around Us, and H. Hung and H. Dryfhout-Clark for providing Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network and Arctic sampling data. We also acknowledge the free use of global historical PCB emission data from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and many research institutions contributing sampling data to the OSPAR Commission where we collected sampled data for model evaluation. This work was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFC0212002), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants 4187750, U1806207 and 41671460).

Author information




J.M. and T.H. designed the study. T.H. performed model simulations. T.H. and W.J. coded the marine food-web model. Z.L., S.S. and W.J. collected the data used in the food-web model. T.H., S.S., Z.L., Y.Z., L.Z., C.G. and X.M. collected the global marine trade data. T.H., S.S., L.C. and K.C. collected the measured data to validate the model. T.H., J.M. and R.W.M. analysed the data, interpreted the results and drafted the manuscript. T.H., J.M., H.G., C.T., S.T. and Z.X. participated in the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jianmin Ma.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Modeled concentrations (for 2012) of PCB-153.

a, Atmospheric gas (pg m−3), b, atmospheric particle phase (pg m−3), c, water (ng L−1), and d, sediment (ng g−1 ww).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Modeled PCB-153 concentrations in marine fish (ng g−1 ww) for various categories.

a, Total fish, b, anchovies, c, herring-likes, d, cod-likes, e, flatfish, f, salmon, g, tuna & billfish, and h, other fishes.

Extended Data Fig. 3 The map of 14 regions regrouped from countries involved in the global fish trade.

The map provides a key to the color scheme.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Global production (tonnes/cell) for selected marine fish at a 1° longitude by 1° latitude resolution in 2012.

a, Total fish. b, Anchovies. c, Herring-like fish. d, Cod-like fish. e, Flatfish. f, Salmon. g, Tuna and billfish. h, Other fishes.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Exports of various marine fish categories (1000 tonnes) through global trade in 2012.

The color shading in each region indicates the total export of marine fish. The width of the arrows represents the relative marine fish exports ≥ 1000 tonnes for anchovies (b), ≥ 10,000 tons for herring-like (c), cod-like (d), flatfish (e), salmon (f), and tuna & billfish (g), and ≥ 100,000 tons for total fishes (a) and other fishes (h) in 2012.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Difference of EDI between Trade and NO-Trade model runs.

The difference is estimated by EDIDF = EDIT-EDINT, referred to as Trade and NO-Trade simulated EDI, which is equivalent to the intake due to consumption of fish acquired through global trade.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Interregional EDI transfers embodied in the global marine fish trade illustrated as a Circos type graph.

Numbers in brackets indicate EDIs of PCB-153 in each region (Extended Data Fig. 3). The width of each band represents the magnitude of EDI and the band color represents the net inflow of EDI. The colors of outer circular rings correspond to the regions marked.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Percent change between 2003 and 2012.

a, Marine fish imported and b, marine fish exported for various countries and regions. Percent was calculated as (I2012 – I2003)/I2003×100, where I2012 and I2003 are marine fish imported or exported in 2012 and 2003.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Production (tonnes, bars) and percentage (pie chart) of farmed Atlantic salmon by countries.

Farmed Atlantic salmon production in 2012 from 9 countries (red bars) and their respective contribution to global total farmed salmon production (%, pie chart).

Extended Data Fig. 10 Export of Atlantic salmon from major countries with salmonid aquaculture (tonnes).

a, Norway, b, Chile, c, UK, and d, Canada. The colors in the ring chart represent the percentage of Atlantic salmon produced and exported from these 4 countries to those countries importing Atlantic salmon.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–10, Tables 1–9 and Notes 1–8.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Species name, lipid content, weight and diet composition represented in the global marine food web.

Supplementary Data 2

Comparisons between modelled and measured PCB-153 concentrations in air, water, sediment and fish.

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Huang, T., Ling, Z., Ma, J. et al. Human exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls embodied in global fish trade. Nat Food 1, 292–300 (2020).

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