Eating wild mussels? Don’t pick your own mussels! PCBs, E. coli and microplastics
Anybody on the coast or in a harbour might be tempted to pick wild mussels themselves. But unfortunately mussels contain relatively high concentrations of chemical substances and potentially dangerous bacteria, especially near harbours. This has emerged from studies conducted by the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research (ILVO), where they examined the quality of mussels on the harbour walls of Nieuwpoort, Ostend and Zeebrugge as well as a number of breakwaters on the Belgian coast.
Picking wild mussels is unhealthy and causes intestinal issues. PCBs, PAHs, microplastics and E. coli
Many mussels are found on the coastline, where they are also cultured. The mussels filter our seawater to extract nutrients, but at the same time also absorb many pollutants. If we examine the contents of the mussels, they serve as a good gauge of the quality of the seawater. Pollution in the North Sea and the oceans has caused the wild mussel population to decline by 70% in the last century, while the quality of mussels has also declined, especially those harvested wild. They contain two to four times as much PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), for which it is believed that oral ingestion will increase the risk of stomach cancer and breathing them in will cause lung cancer. Mussels also contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), high concentrations of which can cause skin and eye diseases, liver damage and jaundice. The PAH levels in mussels found on harbour walls and in their vicinity, such as in Ostend and Zeebrugge, exceeded the nutritional standards by between 10 and 600 percent!
Wild mussels and E. coli bacteria causes intestinal issues
The tested mussels also performed poorly when it came to E. coli bacteria. It is found at high levels in wild mussels, to the degree that it exceeds nutritional standards. A high concentration of E. coli bacteria can cause stomach and intestinal issues, such as nausea, vomiting and (bloody) diarrhoea.
Wild mussels and microplastics
The mussels also contain a great deal of microplastics, with 90 fibres found per kilogram of mussels on average. Many orange fibres are found in harbours, which come from fishing nets.
It’s illegal to pick mussels
Although it is illegal to pick mussels, it still happens regularly. In light of the studies, it would certainly be a good idea to think twice before collecting a bucketful of mussels from the sea.
Sources: De Witte, B; Devriese, L.; Bekaert, K.; Hoffman, S.; Vandermeersch, G.; Cooreman, K.; Robbens, J., 2014. Quality assessment of the blue mussel (Mytulis edulis): comparison between commercial and wild types. Marine Pollution Bulletin,