What happens if our crops are grown in soils contaminated with arsenic-based pesticides and chicken litter with arsenic drugs?
When drugs containing arsenic are fed to chickens, not only does the arsenic grow into their feathers, which are then returned to them as a by-product of the slaughterhouse, but the arsenic can also get into their tissues and then into our tissues when we eat eggs or meat, a cycle pictured at the beginning of my video Where does the arsenic in rice, mushrooms and wine come from?. This explains why national studies have found that those who eat more poultry tend to have more arsenic flowing through their bodies. Why should industry do this? Modern poultry farms, often referred to as concentrated animal feeding CAFOs, allow 200,000 birds to live under one roof, and the floors of these buildings are covered with feces. This so-called factory farming lowers costs, but also increases the risk of disease. This is where arsenic-containing drugs and other antibiotic feed additives can come into play: to try to reduce the spread of disease in such an unnatural setting. If you’re feeling a little complacent about not eating chicken, what do you think happens to the poop?
As shown at 1:17 in mine VideoFrom chicken manure, the arsenic from the drugs in animal feed can get into our plants, into the air and into the groundwater, and into our bodies, regardless of whether we eat meat or not. Yes, but how much arsenic are we really talking about? Well, we raise billions of chickens annually, and if historically the vast majority have been fed arsenic, then if you count, we’re talking about throwing half a million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year – much of it on our crops or on our crops shoveled directly into the mouths of other farm animals.
Most of the arsenic in chicken waste is water soluble, so there are certainly concerns about it getting into groundwater. But if it’s used as fertilizer, what about our food? Studies of arsenic in the U.S. food supply from the 1970s found two foods, other than fish, with the highest levels – chicken and rice – both of which can accumulate arsenic in the same way. Give chickens an arsenic-containing drug like roxarson and it ends up in their dung that goes into the soil that goes into our pilaf. “Rice is [now] the main source of As [arsenic] Exposure in a diet without seafood. “
I was surprised to learn that mushrooms are among the top five food sources of arsenic, but then it made sense after I found out that poultry litter is widely used as a starting material for growing mushrooms in the United States. As you can see in mine at 2:58 VideoOver the years, arsenic levels in mushrooms have rivaled arsenic levels in rice, even though people eat more rice than mushrooms every day. Arsenic levels in mushrooms appeared to be dropping about a decade ago, which was confirmed in a 2016 paper that examined a dozen different types of mushrooms: plain white mushrooms, cremini, portobello, shiitake, trumpet, oyster, nameko, maitake, Alba Clamshell, Brown Clamshell and Chanterelle. Now mushrooms only make up about half the arsenic content of rice on average, as you can see in mine at 3:37 Video.
Just as some mushrooms have less arsenic than others, some rice has less. Rice grown in California contains 40 percent less arsenic than rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Why? Well, arsenic-based pesticides have been used on millions of acres of cotton fields for more than a century, a practice that was classified as “dangerous” as early as 1927. Arsenic pesticides are now effectively banned so it’s not just about buying organic versus regular rice because millions of pounds of arsenic had been put into the ground long before the rice was planted.
The rice industry is aware of this. There is an arsenic toxicity disorder in rice called “straighthead” where rice planted in soil that is too heavily contaminated with arsenic does not grow properly. Instead of choosing cleaner farmland, they only developed arsenic-resistant rice varieties. Now a lot of arsenic can build up in the rice without harming the plant. But can this also be said for the rice consumer?
It’s the same with wine. Arsenic pesticides have been used decade after decade, and although they have since been banned, arsenic can still be sucked out of the ground, resulting in “the ubiquitous presence of arsenic in the earth” [American] Wine [that] can pose a potential health risk. Oddly enough, the researchers summarized their article as saying that “chronic arsenic exposure is known to lower IQ in children.” However, when children drink so much wine, arsenic toxicity is probably the least of their concerns.
Please wait. Chickens are fed arsenic-based drugs? See Where does the arsenic in chicken come from? to find out more.
I assume the topic of arsenic in rice has raised a lot of questions and giving you answers is exactly why I am here! Check out:
Michael Greger, MD
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