Is fish oil safe?

I had a client say something to me yesterday that I thought was kind of peculiar: that fish oil can cause cancer. She's a cancer survivor, and took fish oil for years. Now she refuses to take it on the fear that it will cause her cancer to return. I don't have the slightest clue where she could have heard that, but as is often the case, people base their beliefs on limited information and dubious sources. But I thought this was kind of interesting, since I take fish oil – it's one of the few supplements I actually think has decent research behind hit.  And I don't eat as much fish as I'd like to, so it's kind of a pragmatic supplement.

So I Googled. I couldn't find any data suggesting that fish oil can cause cancer. In fact, the data, while only correlative, seems to be the opposite. What I did find was a lawsuit by some folks who claimed that some brands of fish oil exceeded FDA-approved levels of PCBs, which at high levels pose a cancer risk. Interestingly, the products tested were derived from liver oils, which may contain higher levels of PCBs than oils processed from the whole fish. The companies involved are disputing the findings.

But given the data suggesting that fish oil is, in fact, a pretty darn healthy supplement that, among other things, may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, it seems the best course of action may be to simply avoid liver-based fish oils.

As usual, the picture is not as black and white as people often assume.

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