It's Time to Ban an Arsenic Compound From Chicken Feed

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By Douglas Gansler
Friday, June 26, 2009

Most people don't know that the chicken they eat is laced with arsenic. The ice water or coffee they enjoy with their chicken may also be infused with arsenic. If they live on or near a farm, the air they breathe may be infected with arsenic dust as well.

Why do our chicken, our water and our air contain arsenic? Because in the United States, most major poultry producers add an arsenic compound known as roxarsone to their chicken feed. Inorganic arsenic is a Class A carcinogen that has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and declines in brain function. Recent scientific findings show that most Americans are routinely exposed to between three and 11 times the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended safety limit.

The poultry industry has been using the feed additive roxarsone -- purportedly to fight parasites and increase growth in chickens -- since the Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1944. Turns out that the arsenic additive promotes the growth of blood vessels in chicken, which makes the meat appear pinker and more attractive in its plastic wrap at the grocery store, but does little else. The arsenic additive does the same in human cells, fueling a growth process known as angiogenesis, a critical first step in many human diseases such as cancer.

The arsenic additive also presents health risks to farmers who work with the chemical or fertilizers. Chicken growers have reported illness from contact with roxarsone while preparing feed. Because most smaller growers rely on contracts with larger chicken producers that mandate the use of arsenic in chicken feed, the smaller growers are often unable to avoid the health risks associated with roxarsone.

In 1999, recognizing that any level of inorganic arsenic in human food and water is unacceptable, the European Union outlawed its use in chicken feed. Reportedly, several American chicken producers, including Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, have acted responsibly by discontinuing the use of roxarsone in their animals. Other growers have turned to "organically fed" chicken operations. Nevertheless, as recently as 2006, 70 percent of the more than 9 billion broiler chickens produced annually in the United States were fed roxarsone.

Chicken consumption in the United States has increased dramatically in the past 40 years. In addition to the arsenic Americans consume at the dinner table, American broiler chickens generate billions of pounds of animal waste each year -- more than 1.2 billion pounds annually in Maryland alone -- causing significant runoff of arsenic into soils and surrounding waterways. The dangerous levels of arsenic in chicken manure ultimately contaminate crops, lakes, rivers and fertilized lawns, and it may even reach drinking water. Meanwhile, the poultry industry labors under the legal fiction that although it owns the chicken feed and the chickens that eat the feed, it has no responsibility for the chicken manure.

The federal Food and Drug Administration should ban arsenic from chicken feed. Working through the environmental committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, Maryland has enlisted more than 30 states to join in this effort.

The poultry industry's continued use of arsenic creates unnecessary and avoidable risks to our health and environment. The FDA has delayed banning this poison from our diet for far too long. If offered a side order of arsenic with my chicken, I'd say no. Wouldn't you?

The writer is attorney general of Maryland. He serves on the executive board of the National Association of Attorneys General and is co-chair of the association's environmental committee.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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