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Arsenic in Chicken Feed: A Possible Cancer Cluster Source?

Arsenic from industrialized chicken manure is a possible source of a cancer cluster identified in Arkansas, according to a new report that was featured at a Senate environmental committee hearing on Tuesday.
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Arsenic from industrialized chicken manure is a possible source of a cancer cluster identified in Arkansas, according to a new report that was featured at a Senate environmental committee hearing on Tuesday.

The report, "Cancer Clusters, Disease, and the need to Protect People from Toxic Chemicals," identifies at least 42 disease clusters in 13 states reported since 1976. It calls for better documentation and more study of disease clusters, and for stricter control over toxic chemicals through changes in the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The report, co-written by the National Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance, was discussed Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works by co-author Dr. Gina M. Solomon.

One of the clusters indentified was in the quiet little town of Prairie Grove, in northwest Arkansas, where a testicular-cancer cluster was identified between 1997 to 2001, including among three 14 year-old-boys.

"Though no cause was identified, the town of 2,500 people lies near a now-closed nuclear reactor, a low-level radioactive landfill, a poultry plant, and a manufacturer of poultry feed containing arsenic," the report says. "Local residents were concerned that the poultry factories were contributing to the high rates of cancer and other health problems because arsenic-contaminated chicken manure was used as fertilizer and spread on fields beside schools and homes in Prairie Grove."

In 2004, one resident sued the poultry farms and feed manufacturer, the report noted, but "the court did not rule in favor of the residents and the true cause of the cluster has never been determined."

I spent five days in Prairie Grove in 2007 while researching my book Animal Factory, and though the town is filled with wonderful people, it was one of the saddest experiences I've had in 20 years of journalism.

In this one tiny town of 2,500 people, there had been at least 21 documented cases of pediatric cancer, and many more cases among adults. Many of them had died.

One afternoon a lawyer for some of the families, Jayson Hatfield, walked me down a single street of oncological horrors, pointing to each house as we walked.

"There's a leukemia case in that house, a girl died of brain cancer in that house," he said, "lymphoma there, skin cancer there ..." and so on.

I spoke to dozens of affected family members, and they all blamed the arsenic that had been put into industrial chicken feed at nearby factory farms, and then dry-spread onto nearby cropland in the form of chicken litter (a mixture of organic bedding and manure).

Arsenic had been found in the air filters of several Prairie Grove homes, and at least one scientist traced its molecular fingerprint to the arsenic-feed product, Roxarsone. The heavy metal prevents certain intestinal diseases in birds and, for some uncertain reason, makes them grow faster. Roxarsone is also used at some industrial hog facilities.

It was Jayson Hatfield's client, Michael "Blu" Green, now 26, who sued the companies and lost, including on appeal. The trial judge did not allow Hatfield to discuss all the other cancer cases popping up around Prairie Grove.

"I was one of three pediatric leukemia cases in a very short timeframe right on my street," he told me. Green recovered, the other two, both girls, didn't make it.

As I wrote in Animal Factory:

Blu testified about this illness. He grew up in Prairie Grove and spent time playing outdoors, even as dusty chicken litter was spread on the fields around his home and school. "You just immediately notice the smell," he said. As a freshman, Blu started seeing inexplicable bruises on his body. Blood tests revealed a very high white blood cell count, and doctors diagnosed him with leukemia. He grew despondent and depressed, he testified, constantly warding off the fear of death.

"I knew it was a real possibility," he said with deep sadness. His schoolmate from Prairie Grove, John Blakemore, and the little girl that went to the babysitters house on Mock Street, Holly Green (no relation), had contracted leukemia, and gone into remission. But both of them got sick again and passed away.

Holly had been in the same hospital in Seattle while Blu was being treated there. "Me and Holly were next door to each other," he testified to a somber courtroom. "I held her brother when they unplugged her."

Roxarsone is made with organic arsenic, which is less toxic than inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen. However, certain bacteria found in the soil, and in chicken guts, can convert the metal from one form to another.

Even so, the state of Arkansas says there is no cancer cluster in Prairie Grove, and judges in Arkansas have not been convinced that Roxarsone caused Michael Green's cancer, (although there will likely be more lawsuits).

But something caused three boys in the same school to develop testicular cancer at the same time, and it wasn't chance alone. Perhaps coincidently, their school was surrounded on three sides by fields that received routine applications of dry-spread chicken manure laced with arsenic.

According to Green and other residents, the chicken companies began to reduce or eliminate Roxarsone use, and to not spread litter so close to town sometime around 2004 or 2005 (some litter was reportedly shipped out of state, for use in beef-cattle feed), and Green recently told me that, "there has not been a single case of pediatric cancer, that I am aware of, since then,"

"I think there were things being put into the air that damaged my DNA and other people's DNA, and it caused cancer. Some got one kind, and some got another," he said.

Arsenic exposures have "consistently shown an increase in lung cancer risk," the American Cancer Society says, and some studies suggest a higher risk for "other cancers, including cancers of the skin, stomach, and kidneys, as well as leukemias and lymphomas. However, the results from these studies have not been consistent." Studies from Asia and South America found higher risks of bladder, kidney, lung, skin, and, less consistently, colon and liver cancers.

Other studies have found an association between arsenic exposure and testicular cancer.

Like many people in Prairie Grove, Green needs no convincing that the use of arsenic to make factory-farm chickens grow faster sickened or killed his friends and neighbors.

"Chicken is cheaper when they use those methods, but treatment for illness is not cheap. Cheap chicken will not offset the cost of treating a certain kind of disease," he said. "The reduced cost does not outweigh the value of someone's health, or their life. How much have we really saved? It would take years of eating low-cost chicken to save what it cost for my hospital bills."

Animal Factory, The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment, was recently released in paperback by St. Martin's Press.