Monday, June 4, 2012

Arsenic and Old Hens

Arsenic, that classic chemical that villains use to do away with people in old timey murder mysteries, continues to be in the news. First, we learned that arsenic fed to chickens (more on that in a bit) is stored in their muscles, which we ingest when we enjoy a roast bird for dinner. And if that's not enough, the arsenic-containing wastes from the chickens may be spread as fertilizer on fields, where the arsenic becomes an ecotoxin that is carried by runoff into streams, wells, and other bodies of water.

So we eat it, then we drink it.

But there is a glimmer of good news: the state of Maryland has quietly banned the use of arsenic-containing chicken feeds. Even though it is just one state, Maryland's ban is significant because there are approximately 1,700 poultry producers near the Chesapeake Bay, which, combined, produce about 11 million chickens each week. The arsenic-containing wastes from these birds is significant and has resulted in contamination of nearby wells as well as high levels of arsenic in Chesapeake Bay.

Years ago, research showed that the arsenic-treated lumber used in children's playsets and household decks was a major cause of arsenic exposure. In 2004, the EPA outlawed arsenic as a wood preservative, despite industry's pleas to place a warning label on the wood. The evidence is strong linking arsenic to all sorts of health ills, including cancer and decreased cognitive function. So why is it purposefully put into our food supply?

The answer reflects a problem inherent in factory farming: in order to supply large amounts of inexpensive food, the livestock industry needed to come up with ways to allow lots of animals to grow in close quarters. Some of those ways include dosing the animals with antibiotics to prevent infections,  supplying them with  growth hormones so that will they grow and go off to market more quickly than normal, trimming the beaks of chickens and the tails of hogs so that the animals do not injure each other, and adding arsenic to the chicken feed in order to kill intestinal parasites that inevitably grow in the feces produced by thousands of birds. It's a decidedly sad life for an animal grown in confinement, but if you're going to expect chicken to cost less per pound than a pint of good ice cream, then you should know that's the real price you pay.

So the banning of arsenic-containing feed is a positive step and should result in lowered levels of arsenic compounds in the environment and in our tummies. But the ban does not address the real problem those feeds were introduced to combat - parasites caused by extreme overcrowding. What do you think will happen next? Do you think poultry producers will opt to raise fewer chickens in a roomier environment, which will increase the price of chicken at the supermarket and likely decrease the growers' profits? Or do you think we'll see the introduction of yet another chemical to keep parasites at bay? I'm betting on the introduction of another chemical that will find its way into our food, water, and bodies. But I'd like to be proven wrong on this one, so let's watch Maryland closely to see how its poultry producers adjust to the new law. Maybe, just maybe, some truly innovative thinking will emerge.


Interested in reading more about how arsenic and other environmental contaminants can harm humans at all stages of life? Here is a 2011 report from the National Research Council exploring these issues. The information about arsenic in on page 7, which includes a discussion of the research showing that early exposure to arsenic can decrease intelligence permanently. 

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