For more than 60 years, poultry growers, drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration said Roxarsone, sold under the brand 3-Nitro, contained a harmless form of organic arsenic that is present in almost everything in nature, including a glass of drinking water.
That thinking was firmly contradicted last year by an FDA study that found trace amounts of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens that were fed Roxarsone and then slaughtered for tests. Hundreds of growers in the United States continue to use Roxarsone.
The FDA said eating chicken with traces of inorganic arsenic is safe, but its findings had a strong influence on Maryland lawmakers. Last month they passed a bill banning the use of Roxarsone and other arsenic-based drugs in chicken feed after two years of strong opposition to such a measure from the vast poultry enterprise on the Eastern Shore.
Inorganic arsenic has been linked to various human ailments, including neurological deficits in children, said Keeve E. Nachman, director of the Farming for the Future program at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.
Pfizer, which distributes the drug, agreed to voluntarily suspend its sales after consulting with FDA officials following the study. But growers that stockpiled supplies continue to use it.
Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the House version of the legislation, said the General Assembly was concerned about the levels of arsenic in chicken; about the 30,000 pounds of arsenic added each year to the soil in fertilizer and manure, mostly on the Eastern Shore; and about arsenic washed by heavy rains into rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is expected to sign the bill this week, making Maryland the first state to end a practice in existence since 1944. The law would take effect Jan. 1 for hundreds of growers on the Eastern Shore that continue to use Roxarsone as an antibiotic with a side effect that bursts blood vessels, making meat look pink and plump.
“There are multiple sides to the issue,” said Kenneth Staver, an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center, who studied Roxarsone for the state House Environmental Matters Committee. “But the point was that as you add arsenic to the landscape, it accumulates in the soil. You’re making things go in a direction you don’t want them to go.”