It was almost a decade ago when seven families in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, a town of only about 2,500 people, got together to discuss the high number of rare cancers diagnosed there in recent years. Many of the afflicted were children. “We asked ourselves, “What in the world is going on?””says Beth Green, whose son Michael “Blu” was one of 17 children diagnosed with diseases ranging from brain and testicular cancer to leukemia.
Huge poultry factories hug the rural town, run by contractors and owned by corporations like Tyson Foods, the nation’s second-largest poultry producer. So residents began looking into the companies’ decades-old practice of disposing of chicken waste or “litter” as fertilizer on fields beside homes and schools; a practice typically followed by complaints of asthma attacks, rashes, headaches and nausea. The manure-fertilizer, alive with viruses and bacteria, also contains toxic metals, residents learned, from the growth-promoting feed additive “roxarsone,” an arsenic-based drug fed to an estimated 70% of U.S. broiler (meat) chickens, as well as turkeys and swine. Studies in 2003 showed the majority of organic arsenic in roxarsone is excreted in manure, then breaks down into inorganic arsenic: a potent human carcinogen.
“Almost nothing is known regarding health effects of organic arsenic compounds in humans,” says the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But inorganic arsenic in drinking water has been linked to liver, kidney, lung, bladder and skin cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The poultry industry says there is no evidence that exposure to litter causes cancer, but others point to a dearth of studies. John F. Stolz, a microbiologist at Duquesne University, told reporters the 2003 discovery indicates a topic “screaming for research” into how the body processes arsenic.
Dr. David Bourne of the Arkansas Department of Health called the five cases of testicular cancer diagnosed within five years “higher than expected and therefore troublesome.”Another major poultry region, the Delmarva Peninsula, has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. No one knows why.
In September, New York Congressman Steve Israel introduced “The Poison-Free Poultry Act of 2009,” a food safety bill that calls for a ban on roxarsone. On December 8, 2009, Dr. David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting “the immediate withdrawal of approvals for all animal drug applications for arsenic-containing compounds used in animal feed.”
“Chicken is safe,” says Richard Lobb, director of communications for the industry trade group, the National Chicken Council. “If roxarsone is banned, advantages in animal health and welfare, food safety and environmental sustainability would be sacrificed.” Roxarsone promotes animal growth by controlling parasites and other diseases.