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From January 19, 2005

Arsenic Exposure In Chicken Consumption Underestimated
(Beyond Pesticides, January 19, 2005)
Total arsenic exposure levels considered safe by the EPA may likely be set too high given amounts found in young factory-farmed chicken, according to a study by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and published in the January 2004 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP).

The concentrations found in young commercially farmed chickens are higher and are more widely consumed than previously recognized, finds the study, and “may necessitate adjustments to estimates of arsenic ingested through diet and may need to be considered when estimating overall exposure to arsenic.”

“With chicken being such an important part of the American diet, and consumption continuing to increase, this study suggests the need for possible adjustments in estimates of safe levels of ingested arsenic from drinking water and other dietary sources,” said Dr. Jim Burkhart, science editor for EHP.

Although organic arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, it is inorganic arsenic that poses the biggest health hazards to humans and animals. Humans are exposed to two kinds of the carcinogen in the air, water, soil, and food sources. But unlike organic arsenic, which is found naturally in the environment, inorganic arsenic is present in our food as a result of pesticide application and animal feed. Small amounts of arsenic are added to chicken feed as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved supplement that controls intestinal parasites and is consequently transferred into the meat of the animals.

Other common sources of arsenic exposure include sawdust, smoke, contact with wood containing arsenic preservatives (such as CCA), air and drinking water pollution, and hazardous waste sites.

According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, chronic exposure to inorganic forms of arsenic (10-40 µg/day) is associated with skin, respiratory, and bladder cancers. Researchers of the study found that, “a person consuming chicken at the mean rate of 60 g/day (approximately 2 ounces) might ingest 3.6-5.2 µg of inorganic arsenic per day, and 5.6-8.1 µg total arsenic per day, However, groups that tend to eat more chicken may face doses up to 10 times higher. For example, those in the 99th percentile--1% of the U.S. population who consume more than 350 g chicken/day--ingest 21-31 µg inorganic arsenic/day.”

High levels of arsenic in the body can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, blood vessel change, or death and can damage many tissues including nerves, stomach and intestines.

Through analysis of national monitoring data from the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service's (FSIS) National Residue Program and using chicken consumption data from 1996-2000, the researchers concluded, “Arsenic concentrations in young chickens appear to be 3- to 4-fold higher than in other species categories sampled in the National Residue Program,” and adds, “By 1997, 99 percent of consumption was of young chickens.” One of the authors, Tamar Lasky, an epidemiologist was formerly with the USDA when the study was completed and is now working with NIH, according to Science Central News.

TAKE ACTION: Write EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt and ask that the agency immediately reassess the public’s overall exposure to arsenic, a potent and dangerous carcinogen in consideration of this latest analysis of actual chicken consumption patterns. Eat USDA-certified organic chicken (it does not contain arsenic).