This means, among other problems, an ecological disaster wherever the poultry industry is concentrated. The Delmarva Peninsula, historically one of the most productive fisheries in the U.S., is now nearly an ecological wasteland. Researchers estimate that between 11 and 12 metric tons of arsenic are applied to agricultural land there every year through poultry waste, and arsenic in some household wells reaches up to 13 times the EPA tolerance limit.
But that's far from the only worry. According to Grist:
"Then there's the question of arsenic traces in industrial chicken meat. In 2006, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) tested chicken samples from supermarkets and fast-food joints -- and found that 55 percent contained detectable arsenic."
It’s chemical name is Roxarsone, and it’s widely used on chicken AFOs (Animal Feeding Operations) to control an intestinal parasite that allows the chickens to feed more productively and grow faster (it’s also used in AFO pig feed, although today I am focusing solely on chickens).
There are also several other reasons why you should avoid conventionally raised chickens in your supermarket, which I will go into below.
Use of “Organic Arsenic” is Common Practice
Roxarsone bills itself as an “organic” form of arsenic, which means it contains both carbon and arsenic, rendering it less toxic. The problem is this “organic” arsenic quickly turns into inorganic arsenic, especially once it passes through a chicken (or pig), and that’s where the trouble really begins.
Inorganic arsenic is a toxic poison that ends up both in the chicken meat and the chicken litter that is commonly used as fertilizer on surrounding fields. (For some reason chicken litter is also routinely fed to AFO beef, thereby contaminating them as well).
This inorganic arsenic “byproduct” created inside the chickens is distributed either to market where you consume it with your chicken meat, or it’s dispersed into the environment (by rainfall and watering) wherever the chicken litter is spread as fertilizer. This dispersed arsenic will eventually end up in your drinking water, and in lakes and oceans which are rapidly losing the ability to support life.
This is not a small amount of arsenic we are talking about. According to the article above, 11 to 12 million pounds of this converted inorganic arsenic is going into the environment in the form of chicken litter fertilizer. The people responsible for this massive poisoning of your chicken meat and your environment assure us that the Roxarsone they use is completely harmless, despite the fact that runoff from AFOs has been documented again and again poisoning the environment.
This is just another example of AFOs getting a free pass from the government to do whatever they want to increase both their output and profits, as runoff from AFOs is largely unregulated by the federal laws meant to prevent pollution and protect the quality of drinking water in wells.
Government, especially lately the Republicans in Congress, are always looking for ways to help these large farming corporations avoid regulations meant to protect the environment because they have a fear of upsetting their “client-partners” in industry.
The Problem with Arsenic
Continuous daily or weekly ingestion of arsenic, which could likely happen to you through eating of contaminated chicken meat on a weekly basis (or pig meat or cow meat), or through exposure to drinking water contaminated by high levels of arsenic, has been associated with skin cancer, bladder cancer and lung cancer.
The exact mechanism of arsenic poisoning is not known, but it is thought to compromise your immune system.
Arsenic does occur naturally in groundwater, but is often added to the environment through many other means (besides AFOs) at greater levels than found in nature. For instance, arsenic is used as a wood preservative (and until 2003, was a part of wood treatments for decks and playground equipment), in pesticides, and in special kinds of glass.
Some other problems associated with arsenic poisoning include:
- Thickening and discoloration of your skin.
- Digestive problems such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Numbness in your hands and feet.
If you think you may have been exposed to long-term arsenic poisoning, you should consult your doctor. Arsenic can be measured in blood, urine, hair, or nails. Of these, a urine test is the simplest way to tell if you are being exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic.
Another problem with all this arsenic being distributed is it creates new arsenic exposure pathways for people (especially children) who come into contact with the fertilizer on lawns, gardens or golf courses. So please think twice before applying chicken fertilizer on anything where you allow your children or pets to play.
How Did Arsenic Get Into Poultry (and Pigs)?
According to the article above, the arsenic dosing of livestock began over 80 years ago and is “regulated” in a rather lax manner:
“So how did the practice of dosing poultry with arsenic come to pass -- and what are the regulatory agencies doing about it? Food and Water Watch's Patty Lovera explains that the practice got the green light during the FDR administration, when the science on arsenic was much less advanced.
According to Lovera, the government hasn't revised its standards for arsenic levels in poultry, ‘even as chicken consumption has increased dramatically.’ As for testing, well, it's so lax as to be functionally nonexistent:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's program for testing broiler chickens for arsenic residues conducts startlingly few tests. Between 2000 and 2008, the USDA tested only 1 out of every 12 million domestically produced chickens (or .00008 percent). In 2005 and 2008, the department conducted no tests for arsenic residues in domestically produced broilers.”
So the government really is not regulating the amount of arsenic you are exposed to through conventionally grown chickens.
This is another example of how it’s up to you to take control of your health. My recommendation is you only purchase and eat organic free-range chicken, which I will go into more detail about below.
Arsenic in Your Drinking Water
Although arsenic is a natural component in groundwater, the levels found in some areas are much higher than allowed by the EPA, and this is directly related to runoff from AFOs. According to the source article above, the levels found in private wells near the Chesapeake Bay chicken farming operations are up to 13 times the legal limit.
So what is the legal limit for arsenic in groundwater?
The EPA’s standard for allowable arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion, or .01 parts per million. Which doesn’t sound like a lot of arsenic, but even at those levels health problems can occur. Making matters more complicated, the EPA does not require arsenic testing in private wells, so unless you investigate the matter yourself you are unlikely to discover ANY level of arsenic in your private well.
When it comes to the arsenic from AFO runoff polluting your drinking water sources (and even modern water treatment plants allow some arsenic to remain in your drinking water), you really have to once again be vigilant about looking after your own health.
My recommendation -- no matter how you receive water into your house -- is to purchase a personal water filtration system.
Other Reasons Why You Should Avoid Conventional Chicken
Like I said earlier, there are several other reasons for avoiding conventionally raised chicken found in most grocery stores.
One of the major problems with non-organic animal meat is that they tend to bioaccumulate toxins to a higher degree than vegetables, and conventional livestock feed is frequently laced with a variety of pesticides found in the sources of animal feed. The animals are also routinely dosed with high levels of antibiotics that get passed on to you through the food chain.
Unlike conventional fruits and vegetables, where peeling and washing can greatly reduce the amounts of these toxins, the pesticides and drugs that these animals get exposed to during their lives can become incorporated into their tissues, especially their fat.
While you can cut off some of it, you may still be ingesting high amounts of toxins if you consume such foods regularly.
For this reason alone, if you’re on a tight budget but want to improve your diet, shopping for organic chicken and other meats is a definitely the place to start. This recommendation also applies to pigs and cows as well, as both these animals are exposed to just as many contaminants on conventional AFOs. When it comes to meats, organic is the way to go.
Where Can You Find Healthy Organic Chicken?
If you really want to be sure your food is healthy and safe, it would be best to avoid grocery stores as much as possible, as conventionally-raised livestock, including chickens, are not your best choice.
More and more people are buying food fresh off the farm from producers they personally know and trust, through CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers’ markets, or other local food movements. When you can actually go visit the farm itself, you can see that it’s natural, fresh, and exactly as advertised.
There are plenty of organizations around to help you get started. If you live in an area with severely restricted access to any of these outlets, then, for your convenience, I also have an organic, free-range, antibiotic-free chicken option available in my online store.
And if you are concerned that organic, free-range poultry and other natural foods are too expensive, please be sure to read Dr. Colleen Huber's excellent article on replacing your processed, conventional foods with organics without spending more.
The bottom line is, when choosing chicken you’ll want to make sure they are cage-free, or free-range, organic chickens that are fed organic feed and never given hormones or antibiotics.
How You Can Avoid Arsenic in Your Drinking Water
If you receive your drinking water from a private well, I encourage you to test for arsenic. Kits can be ordered for this purpose. Even urban dwellers who receive treated water from their city are not completely safe from arsenic, as long-term consumption legal allowable limits is no guarantee against accumulated arsenic poisoning.
In either case, whether you receive city water or well water, I suggest you invest in a whole house filtration system or several point of use water filters. The difference is the whole house water filter protects all of the water coming into your house, sparing your appliances and toilets the harsh chlorine byproducts that also end up in your indoor air supply.
But even with a whole house water filter you will still need a point of use filter on your tap to protect you from your home’s lead plumbing!
You can also get involved in this issue by telling your representatives in government that you object to the continued use of Roxarsone and antibiotics in AFO raised animals. If enough people boycott conventionally raised meats and complain to their government representatives, the current system that is poisoning you and your environment may actually come under pressure to change.