Transcript: How Many Cancers Have Been Caused by Arsenic-Laced Chicken?
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 give 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 actual 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. When we feed arsenic to chickens to pinken their flesh, 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.
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