|Associated Press |
BALTIMORE - The poultry industry's widespread use of drugs to raise chickens is exposing people who eat them to more arsenic than previously estimated, according to a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In a paper published Monday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Ellen K. Silbergeld said arsenic-laced drugs intended to keep the birds healthy might pose an increased risk of cancer for consumers. She also said the drugs could create manure that is contaminating Eastern Shore ground water.
Silbergeld's research essentially disputed the conclusions of a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, released in the journal in January, which concluded that the drugs did not pose a serious health problem.
She said the Agriculture Department underestimated the amount of arsenic found in chickens and used outdated data to estimate the health risks of ingesting arsenic.
"This paper had serious problems," Silbergeld said of the USDA report.
Her findings, based on data published by the USDA and other health experts, could have major implications for the Eastern Shore, where 10 percent of the nation's poultry is raised.
A spokesman for the poultry industry said concerns about arsenic in chicken feed are unfounded and that tests consistently show arsenic levels in chickens are well below standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.
"This study appears to be much ado about nothing," Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told The (Baltimore) Sun.
But Silbergeld, a toxicologist who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1993 for her work linking mercury poisoning with infectious diseases, disagreed. She said arsenic in chicken feed creates potential problems in the meat produced and the ground water affected by the waste.
When chickens excrete arsenic in manure, sunlight breaks it down and it migrates to the soil, where it can contaminate ground water supplies, she said. She noted that Europe bans arsenic in chicken feed because of these health concerns.
"This is arsenic. We shouldn't lose sight of the sheer outrageousness of this," Silbergeld said.
Geologists have been closely monitoring arsenic levels in the Eastern Shore's water supply for years without finding serious hazards. Health officials in Queen Anne's, Talbot and Dorchester counties require new wells to be tested for arsenic because of concerns about contamination of the local aquifers, said David Bolton, program director of the hydrogeology section of the Maryland Geological Survey.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey study of the Pocomoke River Basin found slightly elevated levels of arsenic in shallow layers of ground water that could be the result of tainted manure, said Tracy Connell Hancock, a USGS hydrologist.
But she and Bolton said further studies are needed to prove any connection between the manure and arsenic in the water.
"Whether arsenic gets into the ground water from chicken waste is an open question that people are just beginning to investigate," Hancock said.
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