September 23, 2009
Today’s announcement by U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) introducing legislation to ban the use of the arsenical compound roxarsone once again shines the spotlight on the all-too common practice of the unnecessary use of antimicrobial drugs in industrial animal production.
“American consumers simply shouldn’t have to ingest this arsenic compound when they sit at the kitchen table,” said Rep. Israel. “There’s a reason some major poultry producers have stopped using it – it can only cause environmental and health problems. With cancer levels on the rise we need to be vigilant about the sources of health problems, and that means banning roxarsone.”
What is roxarsone and why should we be concerned about its use? Roxarsone is an arsenical antimicrobial drug used extensively in poultry and swine production to combat intestinal parasites, speed growth and improve pigmentation. Some large poultry integrators have reported voluntarily withdrawing roxarsone from feed regimens, although I am unaware of efforts to validate these claims. Further, I am unaware of similar voluntary withdrawals from swine producers. Federal agencies do not mandate the reporting of food animal drug usage, making it difficult to characterize the use of the drug in food animal production.
From a public health perspective, it is increasingly apparent that today, while humans are exposed to arsenic through a variety of pathways, none are as easily controllable as this one. Recent research points to the long-term impacts of the use of arsenic in our food system:
- Some of the administered arsenic stays behind in poultry muscle tissue in inorganic form – evidence of this has been published by Tamar Lasky (USDA) and David Wallinga (IATP).
- Much of the administered arsenic ends up in poultry waste – most as unmetabolized roxarsone, some as various inorganic and organic arsenic species (Garbarino/USGS).
- Excreted roxarsone is rapidly degraded in the environment into arsenate and arsenite, both inorganic forms of arsenic (Garbarino/USGS).
- Management of food animal waste primarily through land application, but also as pelletized fertilizer (Nachman 2008) for residential and commercial settings, incineration (Nachman 2005), and “recycling” of poultry waste into feed (Sapkota) creates the potential for arsenic to move from agricultural fields into nearby surface and ground water sources, fostering opportunities for humans to be exposed to inorganic arsenic (Nachman 2005, Silbergeld and Nachman 2008).
Human exposures to arsenic and roxarsone are of public health concern. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies arsenic as a Class A human carcinogen, and chronic exposures to arsenic have been convincingly linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neuropathy, and neurocognitive deficits in children. In addition, emerging scientific research on these and other health effects resulting from chronic low-level exposures to arsenic, has prompted EPA to reassess its assessment for arsenic to ensure it is adequately protective of human health.
Given this and numerous other troublesome environmental and human health consequences stemming from industrial food production methods, I commend Rep. Israel on the introduction of this important piece of legislation.