Playing Chicken with Arsenic

If I were to pick an element that just about everyone recognizes as a poison, it would be arsenic (As).  As a crumbly compound called “white” arsenic or arsensic trioxide (AsO3) it became so popular as a 19th century homicidal weapon – think Mary Ann Cotton and her 20 or so victims -  that it eventually earned the nickname “inheritance powder.”

Its murderous qualities have given it a starring role in successful plays or movies (Arsenic and Old Lace), in best-selling stories of murder and betrayal, such as Dorothy Sayer’s 1930 crime classic, Strong Poison, or the more recent best seller, A Reliable Wife, with its wonderfully clinical descriptions of chronic poisoning symptoms.

In fact, a person can survive low-level arsenic poisoning for quite some time. But  because of the way it damages cells – breaking apart the structures that allow cellular respiration -  it turns out to be a quite dangerous carcinogen.* This has been demonstrated, especially, in countries where elemental arsenic permeates rocks at high levels and seeps into ground water. In Bangladesh, for instance, a program of well-drilling begun in the 1970s, literally created an epidemic of arsenic-related cancers.

And  yet, for more than 60 years, the federal regulators have approved arsenic additives to poultry feed in the United States, partly to control parasites and partly because they chemically improve the appearance of packaged chicken and turkey parts, pinking them up for consumer approval. Those of us who prefer less obviously toxic material in our chicken buckets – and this includes me – have been advocating that we rethink this policy. I’m linking here to a piece I wrote last fall for The Los Angeles Times in this regard.

Poultry Farm/photo credit:

At the time, I wasn’t really expecting much to change. But as it turns out, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which makes the arsenic-laced additive roxarsone, has decided to suspend its sales.  Why, you wonder, after all this time? It turns out that the industry argument for keeping the compound into chicken feed was that it was a better form of arsenic,  not the ever-evil inorganic white arsenic, but a less toxic material rather tidily bound up with carbon (so, in this version,  an organic compound) and hydrogen.

In fact, organic arsenic is  definitely less hazardous than its inorganic (carbon-free) cousin. But tests now indicate that it may convert to the more lethal inorganic form as chickens and other fowl metabolize the compound. We know this because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stepped up and ran some very nicely controlled tests showing that the bodies of birds that ate roxarsone-loaded food were consistently higher in white arsenic than those that ate feed without the additive.

As a result, Pfizer – or more specifically, its subsidiary, Alpharma, will suspend sales of roxarsone in 30 days while further tests are conducted. You’ll notice that no one is acting as if this is a major health emergency – which it isn’t. These are tiny levels of arsenic. Still – there’s a common sense health issue here -  it’s always better with a metallic poison like arsenic to keep exposure to a minimum because it tends to stay in the body and could eventually add up to something more troubling. Also,  as it turns out, due to such additives poultry farms have been leaching out arsenic-contaminated wastes.  The advocacy position has not been panicky, but it has been – rightly, I think – that this represents the unnecessary addition of a famed poison to the food supply.

So it’s gratifying to see the system work – or at least start to work – toward eliminating this particular additive.  The FDA ran the appropriate tests; the pharmaceutical company responded as it should. The New York Times, however, pointed out that it could well be a rare triumph given our current political direction:  The roxarsone study is a triumph for agency scientists but one unlikely to be repeated very often. The agency asked for $183 million in additional funds for food safety efforts next year, but House Republicans have instead proposed cutting $87 million.

Not that the House Republicans have ever listened to me but my vote is for restoring those funds. Not to sound radical here but we need more research to help us navigate the world of industrial chemicals. Not less.  And my vote is also that roxarsone stays off the market. Again not to sound radical but – we need less arsenic in our diets. Not more.

*  Arsenic is so destructive that, in fact, researchers are considering several different mechanisms for the way it might cause cancer.  It may create further destruction by generating reactive oxygen molecules. There’s some suggestion that it inhibits DNA repair enzymes. There may be other damaging pathways. All of which reminds us to approach with caution.

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11 Responses to Playing Chicken with Arsenic

  1. Roger Joseph says:

    We need to spend $183 million to figure out that we shouldn’t feed arsenic to chickens and then eat the chickens. No wonder the country is going broke. Thank God for House Republicans and a little common sense.

  2. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    Beware of common sense solutions to “bad” things in technology. People who judge the health effects of chicken feed on their technical knowledge gained from Arsenic and Old Lace, are to be ignored.

    It is quite true that arsenic, an ancient killer, is found in the well water of that accursed nation, Bangladesh. It is a minor problem to people who live between two powerful nations, India and Myanmar (Burma) who hate and kill them for religious reasons. Arsenic in a concentration of perhaps 10,000 ppm (look it up) is deadly. In concentrations of 2E2 (look it up), there is no known identified problem. The danger is in the dose. If common sense says never ingest trace amounts of arsenic, then abandon large areas of the American southwest, where arsenic is part of the environment, the rock. Ms. Blum may wish to regulate God on this issue, but will confront jurisdictional issues.

    Beware of environmental journalism, which touts common sense, but is really ignorance, prejudice and hatred against science, and large corporations.

  3. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    Errata with apologies, the phone rang:

    Strike 2E2. Insert 2E2 ppm

  4. I’m being nitpicky, I guess…but I don’t feel 100% happy about this: “But because of the way it damages cells – breaking apart the structures that allow cellular respiration – it turns out to be a quite dangerous carcinogen.”

    If you’re talking about how it works as a poison, yes, arsenate replaces phosphate in various reactions during cellular respiration (with some pretty unfortunate consequences). But if you’re talking about the way it causes cancer, several different hypotheses have been proposed, and this is still an area for research. It could, for example, cause oxidative stress by generating ROS; it’s also been suggested that trivalent arsenic alters DNA repair by inhibiting DNA repair enzymes. So there are several different things going on. We KNOW it’s a carcinogen, of course, because of the epidemiological studies. But we still need more info to know exactly HOW.

    As I said, a minor quibble — but still something I wanted to point out.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    I think you make an excellent point here. I was talking about the way arsenic disrupts the ATP cycle and I could have definitely gone more indepth – as you have here – in explaining some of the issues, and questions, regarding its actions as a carcinogen. I’ll footnote the piece, just to be more accurate. Many thanks.

  6. Tom Rhoads says:

    You have misrepresented the point of the article to create a straw-man and then knocked down the straw man. The $183 million requested by the FDA is the additional funds for food safety in general. If you want to make a point that the FDA is over-funded and not under-funded then make your case with counter examples that are as convincing and well written as this blog.

  7. Roger Joseph says:

    I disagree; the Blog is where the straw man argument is contained. It is a no-brainer that we should not be introducing arsenic into the human food chain. The author then lurches into a condemnation of cutting $183 million from her beloved Government budget, which has nothing to do with the rest of the article. This illustrates the classic Democrat line: all cuts of Government spending are bad; only increases are good. Sorry, not buying it.

  8. Deborah Blum says:

    That’s a good point and it serves me right for simply dropping in a NYT excerpt instead of saying this more clearly. The arsenic study itself was not especially expensive but the work done to show that organic arsenic metabolizes to inorganic was key to Pfizer’s decision to suspend drug sales until it did further research. That’s a common sense approach both by government and by industry. But to reach that very practical point, we first have to be willing to invest in food safety research. Will I personally agree with every decision made regarding that $183 million? Probably not. But do I believe that we’re better off investing in thorough science and research? Absolutely. If we’re going to regulate, if we’re going to make reasonable choices regarding chemical risks, then we should take the trouble to understand them. That’s really the point that the NYT reporter was making and the one that I do want to emphasize here.

  9. Deborah Blum says:

    Well, I agree with you here that it’s a no-brainer that we shouldn’t add extra-arsenic into the food chain. And I actually agree with you as well that we should tighten up federal spending. That’s reality. My point is really that we should try to be smart and thoughtful about what we cut. My vote – not that I expect it to influence the big decisions – is that I’d rather see us preserve the budget for food safety research. That’s the kind of research that fostered this recent, very reasonable decision on roxarsone. And I’d rather see more intelligent, research-backed regulation than best-guess regulation. Hope this clarifies.

  10. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    Now we are getting somewhere, at the issues. First full disclosure: I have no expertise or financial interests in arsenic, biology, or their related industries. I have enormous interest in valid science, and sound scientific governmental policy.

    My judgments: The US will not survive its political, as distinguished from science based, technical risk assessments. Arsenic is simply one example of a topic worthy of discussion: How do we set trace limits of anything, which may, or may not, cause harm over long periods of time? Or be beneficial? To answer these ubiquitous risk questions required tons of money and talent which does not exist. The issue has created two political camps: academics and regulators, whose rice bowl depends on justifying their expertise in “exposing” real and present dangers in socially consumed substances, or corporate technocrats who are paid to make it, cheaply, for sale. Add to this conflict, the revolution in electronics which is now capable of detecting ppb concentrations, for the first time in human history. The results are indicative studies, with extreme precision, of very limited scope relative to the real world, which produce almost no understanding of the risks which the numbers tell us. Indeed they sometimes contradict what we know. Example: Four months ago, we knew some forms of E Coli were dangerous, and radiation was dangerous. Today, there are dozens dead and hundreds in IC units overwhelming European medical technology. Why? Bean Sprouts, and probably one ignorant farm worker. However three nukes in Japan suffered the “end of the world melt down” and not one person has died. The root cause was perhaps the largest earthquake since Christ was alive (pardon my historic reference.) Some 30,000 are dead, 800,000 are unemployed, and a nation’s GDP is crippled. Some eighteen months ago, a scientist reassessed the tsunami height as disastrously higher than the nuke’s designed defenses, established in the 1960s.

    Pondering the above, should we expend huge sums of money and talent, severely regulating trace arsenic in chicken feed, trace amounts of radiation, and/or bean sprout farming? The entire universe contains trace amounts of virtually everything, and we have very limited financial and technical resources. We know that trace arsenic exists in the drinking water of the American southwest. There is no known danger below 2E2 ppm, many times higher than the EPA defined limit. We known there is enormous costs (ill defined) in extracting trace arsenic, a naturally occurring substance, from our ingestion streams. IMHO the oft used “anything greater than zero is dangerous” philosophy is both unscientific, and not safe, because if honestly, rigorously applied, it causes poverty, due to high costs for “pure” water, with resulting severe health risks.

    Would I endorse more research on trace arsenic long term effects? Yes, both in the lab and epidemiological studies. Who should draw the line defining risk? The smart people, in industry, academia, and government. It must not be done by fear mongers, or tort lawyers, which has become the norm. Should the risk be zero? There is no such thing. Should there be full disclosure that chickens are fed trace arsenic? Yes, but I will still feed the meat to my grand kids.

    Do I apriori trust FDA, Pfizer, the U of W, Dems or Repubs more? No. That is common sense.

  11. Roger Joseph says:

    America is about to go broke. Our food is, by and large, the safest it has been in the history of the human race, so at this critical juncture we do not need to spend millions or billions to double down on this area of safety. We need to cut spending or America will go the way of Greece. Let’s do common sensical things like not eat arsenic, and agree that painful spending cuts must be done. The FDA seems like a good candidate, and I’m sure that the Congressional Republicans acted with care in determining that this was a good area for cuts. One of many tens of thousands, I trust.