At most petting farms and carnivals children can be seen excitedly gathered around the chicken coops. They are enthralled with the iconic animals that have roamed the happy farms of Old McDonald and Babe. However, chickens may not be as safe and cuddly as many children–or their parents–assume.

The results of a Utah investigation into the astronomically high levels of arsenic in two local children led to a startling discovery. The kids’ arsenic levels came from their backyard chickens.

Further investigation led to the real culprit, which was the feed being given to their feathery pets. This widely-used and completely legal chicken feed contains high levels of arsenic additives in the form of roxarsone.

Roxarsone is used in many different chicken feeds in order to prevent the birds from contracting parasitic diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the additive because it is the natural variety of arsenic and thought to be less dangerous. However, roxarsone may be more dangerous than previously thought, judging by the high levels of arsenic poisoning in these two Utah children.

Though many city children only get to see chickens at petting farms and carnivals, chickens are starting to creep off of country farms and into residential neighborhoods. This particular type of chicken is called the “Backyard Chicken” and is steadily gaining popularity. As Food Safety News reported in June, many cities are starting to allow chickens onto even very small residential properties of 5,000 square feet.

This raises the question, should roxarsone be allowed in the feed of animals infiltrating the backyards of our neighborhoods? reported the results of a researcher at Duquesne University who found evidence that arsenic converts to the inorganic and highly poisonous kind when it is mixed with chicken manure.

Chicken manure is often later used as fertilizer and can leak into waterways.

Christine McNaughton, the toxologist working on the two arsenic cases told the Salt Lake City Tribune, “For anyone who has backyard chickens, this is an issue.”

The Minneapolis based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is petitioning the FDA to ban the arsenic additives. David Wallinga, a director at the Institute, stated, “Because we’ve turned a blind eye to what we put in our animal feed, we’re putting our children at risk.”

Arsenic additives are banned in Europe.

  • Doc Mudd

    Newsflash: “…chickens may not be as safe and cuddly as many children–or their parents–assume…Roxarsone is used in many different chicken feeds in order to prevent the birds from contracting parasitic diseases.”
    And welcome, self-styled experts & armchair critics of modern farming, to the harsh whole-farm global ecological reality of truly sustainable agriculture in the year 2010. Alas; far, far from quaint romantic fantasies of a magical, simple, abundant, welcoming, lethargic, bucolic agrarian peasant utopia useful first and foremost for the amusement of visiting children.
    Damn, it all seemed so simple and obvious and trendy, didn’t it?
    Uh, until you actually gave it a whirl! Oh, oohh…goddam chickens and reality and nature and ecology and disease and epidemiology and economics and having to feed a growing human population and having to pay the feed bill and the electric bill and…oh, oohh, oooohhhhh!!

  • dangermaus

    Are you guys seriously saying that the real problem here is that ordinary people were raising chickens, and not that industrially-raised chickens are kept in such filthy, overcrowded conditions that they need to feed them arsenic keep them from dying from infections?
    Wow… Two sick kids… Better create a new federal agency to keep people from raising chickens in their yards! Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s ban bicycles, monkey bars, swimming pools, and crossing the street, too. To be EXTRA safe, let’s condemn every house in the country built before 1976 until they’re certified as de-leaded, mold-free, radon-free and dust mite free1

  • Doc Mudd

    The “real problem here”, dangermaus, is that chickens and their parasites are very real. And that clashes with unreal popular romantic notions of the good old days. Y’all ought to have lived the good old days before you so fervently wish them back into existence. Oh, well, they say history repeats itself. Apparently to placate headstrong youngsters and a handful of sheltered diehard Luddite elders.

  • dangermaus

    Luddite? Your simultaneous ignorance of and contempt for the local food movement is sad. The sustainable food movement is relies HEAVILY on technology, although more “information technology” than the “industrial” kind normally associated with farming since the (nigh-miraculous) discoveries produced by the petrochemical industry in the early part of the 20th century. It relies on things like more precise measurements of soil moisture and plant growth to get small amount of water exactly where it needs to be, information sharing, and methods of applying of minute amounts of pesticides directly onto the plants and bugs we want to control.
    The saddest part of it is that I don’t think you see (or care?) how your insistence that we only listen to the self-proclaimed “experts” limits the freedom of people around you. These “experts” are people with STRONG personal interests in keeping society from evolving. They’re part of the industrial food production paradigm that’s helping keep us reliant on foreign oil, part of the interventionist medical paradigm that’s bankrupting us, and part of the culture of zero personal accountability where people sue others for idiotic mistakes they make on their own.
    Where are we going with these paradigms? In 2215, are we all going to need (or be compelled to have) a robot lawyer/cop that continuously reminds you to keep in line with the ever-expanding web of regulations and laws that we keep passing? Are we going to live in a world where we only eat food synthesized from carbohydrates, proteins, etc grown by bacteria in giant vats? Will there be laws mandating that people eat only certain things, avoid certain behaviors, and be forced to take preventative medications to prevent adding costs to the government’s health care system?
    This seems like fiction, partly because that kind of change won’t happen all at once, obviously, but if you look at opinions about personal responsibility in accidents, the nutritional value of ready-to-eat food in the 1940’s and 50’s I find it hard to believe they ever would have thought things would get even this far! Do you think we, as citizens, need to act to protect our freedom? If you think we SHOULD protect our freedom, how do you think we should act?
    Aldo Leopold, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

  • Doc Mudd

    Your first paragraph, dangermaus, is an exquisitely accurate expression of truly sustainable agriculture and I am in compete agreement. Bravo!!
    Now, as to “freedom”…that’s a good deal more complex and subjective. We long ago lost the individual freedom to slap some sense into misguided nimrods who desperately need it. So, we are left to grapple within ‘the system’, such as it is.

  • Spadarkly

    The problem is not that people have backyard chickens…the problem is that the feed industry puts arsenic in the chicken feed available to the public without warning them of possible risks. Backyard chickens who are not given commercial feed do not pose health risks. Simple as that.

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, of course! If we just turn the chickens loose to fend for themselves, let them frantically scratch for bugs and such, life will be forever more grand and glorious. Can’t the stupid chickens just scrounge off the neighbor’s generosity? /sarcasm off
    Fantasy is a wonderful and hopeful thing in a naive child. In a grown adult it is just sad…if not pathologic. Dream on, girls, dream on.

  • Doc Mudd, your sarcasm and comments prove the misinformation you insist on preaching.
    There is no such suggestion of turning the chickens loose to fend for themselves, or letting them frantically scratch for bugs and such. Have you not heard of ‘certified organic feed’ until now? Life will be forever more grand and glorious, if you did. And asking things like, “Can’t the stupid chickens just scrounge off the neighbor’s generosity?” shows the mentality of a red-neck.
    Your insistence to dangermaus that the “real problem here”, is that chickens and their parasites are very real. Yes, that is a real problem and there are modern advances as well as old school techniques to address these issues such as diatomaceous earth, etc. But the “real problem here” isn’t limited to just that. It also includes the general rate of decline of the American public by modern industrial farming methods (like CAFOs) that include poisons such as arsenic (among many other antibiotics & pesticides) which fuels the financial crisis we now face in healthcare.
    Does that clash with unreal popular romantic notions of the good old days? I think you need to wake up and smell the coffee. Each generation has it’s own problems and crises. Why you’d prefer a poisoned food supply over parasites affecting livestock is beyond me and appears ridiculous…
    Belittling those in favor of accountability as backward, romantic idealists who are out of touch with reality and carry a distorted view of the past portraits you as a cheerleader for industrial-commercial agriculture, blindly acting on their behalf. Your politically correct assumptions would be forgivable if not for your sarcasm that paints us all as little children with so much to learn, but you… oh, no… have already arrived – giving you the right to make fun of all the rest of us.
    In my book, willful ignorance is inexcusable. It’s also pitiful and shameful…
    So before you begin waving your pom-poms around for industrial-commericial agriculture any longer, could you pay a little more attention to what the people on this site are really saying (like don’t purchase the medicated chicken feed, get the non-medicated or organic non-GMO feed instead) before you try to stomp all over them? If you’re careful, you might actually learn something.

  • Monte Haun

    The problem is not that people have backyard chickens…the problem is that the feed industry puts arsenic in the chicken feed available to the public without warning them of possible risks. Backyard chickens who are not given commercial feed do not pose health risks. Simple as that.”
    Arsenic is also an appetite enhancer which makes the chickens and the chicken’s consumers eat more.
    Chickens are now innoculated with GM gut bacteria that are super efficent at extracting energy and nutrients from their food as it also does for humans how contract the bacteria.
    How else do these smart a-sses think producers can raise a 5 pound chicken in 3 1/2 weeks.
    Don’t forget the antibiotics.
    Free range chickens don’t need all the medications that intensively farmed animals do.
    Monte Haun

  • Tina

    For my local farms this is added at the farm level not the feed store. IDK but this is just seems to be something that breds fear when it doesn’t truely effect most people.

  • Max

    {The “real problem here”, dangermaus, is that chickens and their parasites are very real.}
    Newsflash! Chickens are real, and the sky is falling! Let’s let the government and big business protect us since we know that they really have our best interests at heart.
    I believe the point to be made here is that the arsenic content needs to be disclosed (and preferably removed) from the feed. If we have have to label a bag of peanuts “Warning: Processed in a plant that uses peanuts” and that a loaf of wheat bread “Contains wheat,” then shouldn’t we have a right to expect that poisons be labeled on feed packages?
    But I’m not as astute as the good Doc here.

  • Chicken Keeper

    Terribly irresponsible reporting in a “Science and Research” section. How about a more accurate (albeit less sensational) title such as “Food Additives Linked to Arsenic in Children” . . .