A food chain important to Inuit in Northeastern Canada has been poisoned by a fuel slick off the coast of Labrador, potentially causing short and long-term food safety concerns.

Even when lethal impacts are not observed, oil can make fish and shellfish unsafe for humans to eat.

Officials are trying to determine the cause of the slick as they plan a cleanup operation. A plane survey observed an estimate of 2,000 to 3,000 liters of “pollutant” spread over 13 square kilometers — 5.01 square miles.

The smell of diesel alerted the community to the fuel slick in the Postville harbor Monday afternoon. The discovery of the slick has immediately raised fear for the safety of ocean wildlife, especially those species used for food.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. scientific agency within the United States Department of Commerce, when exposed to oil, adult fish may experience reduced growth, enlarged livers, changes in heart and respiration rates, fin erosion, and reproduction impairment. Fish eggs and larvae can be especially sensitive to lethal and sublethal impacts.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are two ways that oil can cause seafood to be unfit for consumption.

  • The first is through the presence of certain levels of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), some of which are carcinogenic. Oil is composed of many chemicals. However, it is the carcinogenic, or potentially cancer-causing, PAHs which are of greatest concern because they can be harmful if consumed in sufficient amounts over a prolonged period of time.
  • The second way seafood can be considered unfit for consumption is if it smells or tastes like a petroleum product. This is known as the presence of “taint.” Under U.S. law, a product tainted with petroleum is considered “adulterated” and is not permitted to be sold as food. Petroleum “taint” in and of itself is not necessarily harmful and may be present even when PAHs are below harmful levels; however, it should not be present at all.

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