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How Many Cancers Have Been Caused by Arsenic-Laced Chicken?

Arsenic-containing drugs intentionally added to poultry feed to reduce the parasite burden and pinken the meat are apparently converted by cooking into carcinogenic inorganic arsenic compounds.

April 11, 2014 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited


Images thanks to michelle@TNS via Flickr.


In 2013, Maryland became the first state to ban the feeding of an arsenic-containing drug to chickens, which is used to control parasites and gives their meat an appealing pink color. In 2011, the FDA found that the livers of chickens fed this drug had elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, a known human carcinogen. In response, the drug’s manufacturer, Pfizer, voluntarily pulled the drug off the U.S. market. Although, it’s still sold overseas, including to places that continue to export chicken back to us, and a similar arsenic-containing drug for use in poultry is still available in the United States. At least the ban kept Maryland farmers from using stockpiles of the drug.

How much arsenic gets into the actually meat, though, not just the internal organs? We didn’t know until recently. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health coordinated the purchase of chicken breasts off grocery store shelves in ten cities across the country, and found 70% of samples of chicken meat from poultry producers that didn’t prohibit arsenic drugs were contaminated with the cancer-causing form of arsenic at levels that exceeded the safety thresholds originally set by the FDA, before they relented and admitted there’s really no safe level of this kind of arsenic.

See, when the drug was first approved, scientists believed its organic arsenic base would be excreted unchanged, and organic arsenic is much less dangerous than inorganic arsenic. But guess what appears to convert the drug into the carcinogenic form? Cooking. When chicken meat is cooked, levels of the arsenic-containing drug go down and levels of carcinogenic arsenic go up, suggesting the drug may degrade into the cancer-causing inorganic arsenic species during cooking. How much cancer are we talking about? If you estimate that about three-quarters of Americans eat chicken, then the arsenic in that chicken has potentially been causing more than 100 cases of cancer every year. They conclude that eliminating the use of arsenic-based drugs in chicken and pig production could reduce the burden of arsenic-related disease in the U.S. population.

That’s one of the ways arsenic gets into rice. The resulting arsenic-bearing poultry manure is then introduced to the environment, the soil, the water, and then rice can then suck it up from contaminated soil and be transferred to human beings that don’t even eat chicken. We’re talking massive environmental contamination from the poultry industry; nearly 2 million pounds of arsenic has been poured into the environment every year by the chicken industry alone in the United States.

And now we’re even seeing arsenic in foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup, so there’s all these knock on effects. It reminds me of the arsenic in apple juice story. Although the US made lead and arsenic-based pesticides illegal years ago, they still persist in the soil, so even organic products are not immune.

Yes, there are arsenic deposits naturally in the Earth’s crust, and there’s the industrial contamination and pesticide use, but arsenic-containing poultry drugs have been deliberately administered to animals intended for human consumption for 70 years. Consequently, exposures resulting from use of these drugs are far more controllable than are exposures from environmental sources. And the good news is that thanks to a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety and other consumer groups, three out of the four arsenic-containing drugs fed to poultry have been officially pulled from the market.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I’ve previously address this in my video Arsenic in Chicken. Nice to see some progress made!

The antibiotics the poultry industry continues to feed chickens present another public health hazard. See my videos: Cooking may also create other carcinogens from the muscle itself:

 If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    What can I say?

    • JacquieRN

      Great song!

    • Coacervate

      Hmm, I hear “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf and the movie I see is a certain clip at the end of “Taxi” driver… “You talking to me?”

      • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

        I`m the only arsenic here…..

        • Coacervate

          ;) There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this arsenic off the streets.

  • Lawrence

    There’s no doubt the poultry industry has done some serious damage to our environment and our fellow citizens. I recommend the documentary ‘A River of Waste’ to everyone.

    • JacquieRN

      Thanks for sharing Lawrence, I haven’t seen this yet, but is now on my list to watch.

  • Lawrence

    Dr. Greger, I forgot to mention to your readers that you are featured prominently in ‘A River of Waste.’ Your contribution adds so much.

    On a slightly unrelated topic, perhaps some day you will weigh in on the use of biosolids as fertilizer. The whole idea of using this sludge is, frankly, unsettling. I would be very interested in what you have to say about this practice. Thank you.

  • Gayle Delaney

    OK, So… 3 out of 4 arsenic-containing drugs have been “officially” pulled from the market. Does that mean that all the efforts to get these drugs out of our food supply have resulted in granting one company a monopoly in this market? Does anyone know who this lucky company is?

    Usually in such situations, one company has more political influence and money than the others. The relevant politicians look like good guys for banning some of the offending products. It sounds like the favored company received a present from their favorite politicians: a monopoly or a much less competitive marketplace.

    Does anyone know if this is what happened in this case?
    Why would the 4th arsenic-containing drug still be allowed in our foods?

    • masobel

      In this case, the same company produces the 4th drug as well (Nitarsone). The company is a subsidiary of Pfizer. Nitarsone is currently under investigation by the FDA but the industry claims that it’s the only known treatment for blackhead disease which effects turkeys. The disease can be prevented by keeping the animals in sanitary conditions. There is also an herbal formula that seems to work well.

      It’s important to note that the FDA only rescinded approval for these drugs after the Pharma companies had already voluntarily removed the drugs from the market. Nitarsone is still being widely used so essentially, the FDA didn’t get approval from the industry to rescind approval for the drug!

      • Gayle Delaney

        Now that’s a telling closing statement, Masobel! Thank you.

    • Coacervate

      All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

      You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goshdarnit! My life has value!”

      So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,

      “I’m as mad as hell,

      and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

      ——Howard Beale in “Network”

      …I know its corny but i really feel this way sometimes…CoA

      • JacquieRN

        Me too!

  • Coacervate

    You people show no business sense at all. Who do you think you’re talking to? How are we supposed to move this vast stockpile of noxious crap if we can’t sell it? Did it ever occur to you that we’ve invested a lot of $$ so you can have that healthy white low fat low cholesterol high protein low carb filth for an attractive 0.89 cents/lb on your plate. Times are tough. We know whats good for you because we’ve told the USDA what to say. What’s a few cancers when your health is at steak? Just eat the product and quit listening to that man behind the video and nobody gets hurt more than usual.

  • DGH

    Nothing surprises me anymore. I was somewhat shocked to learn that animals in the livestock industry are fed parts of slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption, which is how mad cow disease happened in England. I am not surprised that chickens get fed a known human carcinogen in the name of enhancing profits. It’s virtually no wonder that we are dealing with a human epidemic of malignancy.

    I am so glad I found my way to a plant-based diet. Not that I am entirely protected from synthetic carcinogenic additives, but at least what I eat is not bioconcentrating them up the food chain.

  • barbarabrussels

    … delicious again, Peter.

  • Ruby

    I just have to keep saying Dr G, your work and elucidative reports are so very greatly appreciated, as well as profoundly diaheartening. Info we all need – like medicine, tastes bad but good for us. No wonder I got sick as sin when I went back to meat eating for a few years. It’s a horror out there above and beyond animal cruelty. Sobering. Your elucidative reports are confirmation every single day.

  • Merio

    it is off topic, but i suggest to all NF readers to check out the PlantPositive channel on you tube, or on his site…

    The Primitive Nutrition Series is really good…

  • BennyB

    It’s healthy, ’cause it’s chicken.