“We have guests for dinner. Wife, please make them delicious chicken curry with arsenic in it. No? Then let’s take them out to have tandoori chicken – with arsenic.”
These are not lines from the latest Bollywood murder mystery script. This is reality. Arsenic is that deadly element which has killed many a character in plays, movies and novels. What is hidden is the arsenic in our daily consumption.
Arsenic is of two kinds – organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic compounds are much more harmful for humans than the organic kind (which is also harmful). They react with the cells in the body, displace elements from the cells, and change the cells’ function. For example, cells use phosphate for energy generation and signalling, but one form of arsenic, known as arsenate, can imitate and replace the phosphate in the cell. This impairs the ability of the cell to generate energy and communicate with other cells. It changes the functioning of 200 + enzymes. Which means that it becomes a deadly poison. The toxicity of arsenic has been described as far back as 1500 BC in the Ebers Papyrus.
Acute arsenic poisoning can lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, watery diarrhoea containing blood, cardiac problems, destruction of red blood cells, vertigo, delirium, shock, coma and death.
But it is the long-term exposure of low amounts of arsenic you should really worry about. (The rest of the world has banned arsenic as a chemical to prevent the insect infestation of wood used in building. However it is still used in India for wood preservation.) We are exposed to it through milk, apple juice and wine (the FDA found high levels of inorganic arsenic in 83 brands of wine). But most of all, it is present in the many types of meat that we consume, especially fish, shellfish and chicken. Low doses of arsenic cause far less severe symptoms. But that doesn’t mean that the body is not being slowly and systematically destroyed by chronic poisoning, even if the compound is weakly toxic. Arsenic is related to Vitamin A deficiency, heart disease, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, lung, bladder and skin cancers and kidney / liver disease. Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to skin changes (darkening or discoloration, redness, swelling and skin bumps that resemble corns or warts). Whitish lines may appear in the fingernails. Both sensory and motor nerve defects can develop. Other problems are lactic acidosis. Arsenic blocks potassium going into the cells and low potassium increases the risk of experiencing a life-threatening heart rhythm problem, neurological disturbances, high blood pressure, central nervous system dysfunction, anaemia. Epidemiological studies have suggested a correlation between chronic consumption of arsenic and the incidence of Type 2-diabetes. Pregnant women who eat arsenic may have babies with low birth weight and size. Early signs are headaches, confusion and drowsiness.
You are eating it every time you eat chicken.
Since the 1940s, chickens have been fed arsenic to promote growth and weight gain with lower feed. It means that you can feed the battery cage chicken less food and the chicken will grow just as big. This saves money for the poultry owner. The drug Roxarsone and Nitarsone makes the chickens grow bigger faster and gives their unhealthy and diseased grey battery cage skin an artificial pink colour to make them look healthy.
The makers of Roxarsone, Nitarsone and the American Food and Drug Administration justified and allowed its use on the grounds that the arsenic used was organic. However, they were proved wrong by a 2011 study at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future which analyzed hundreds of chicken breasts sold in grocery stores in 10 cities across the USA. The study showed that Roxarsone turned immediately into carcinogenic inorganic arsenic in chicken bodies. Further, when this chicken was killed and cooked, the levels of inorganic arsenic increased to dangerous levels. According to a 2006 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 70 percent of the 8.7 million chickens, bred for the food supply, ate feed containing Roxarsone. Johns Hopkins immediately asked the FDA to protect public health by withdrawing its approvals of all arsenic-based drugs, and Congress to pass legislation to permanently ban all arsenic-based drugs from food animal production.
Some US poultries voluntarily removed it in broiler production in the US (no ban has been put). After growing concerns about cancer, Pfizer announced, in 2011, that they were not going to market it in the US any more. However the company continues to sell Roxarsone and Nitarsone abroad. While animal feed, with arsenic-containing compounds, was always banned in the 25 countries of Europe, the UK, Japan, many countries in Asia, Canada and Australia continue to allow it in animal feed.
Roxarsone and Nitarsone are used massively by Indian poultries. In fact, a simple search for arsenic-based farm feed throws up 22,300 sellers and distributors across the country. You can look it up under poultry and animal feed, broiler feed, broiler growth promoter. One Roxarsone ad reads “Established in the year 2010, we are able to offer a wide range of products such as Poultry Feed Additive and Wood Preservative. We have a huge clientele based across the world. Some of our major clients are from the countries like Latin America, Middle East, South America, South/West Europe, South East Asia, Central America, Australia, Malaysia and Indian Local Market.”
More and more people are consuming chicken now, without realizing the presence of deadly arsenic inside it. As per the Global Agricultural Information Network, the consumption of processed chicken in India is rising at 15-20% per year. Statistics of the Indian Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries show that an estimated 238 crore chickens were slaughtered in 2016-17 in India.
A study conducted in Kolkata, by the West Bengal University of Fishery and Animal Sciences, showed the dangerously high level of arsenic in chicken, mutton and egg samples. The study covered poultry and other farms in eight villages in the Deganga block of North 24-Parganas. It showed that poultry products from the area contained five times more arsenic than the permissible levels. 60% of Kolkata’s chicken and egg supply came from North 24-Parganas. “We found that broiler chicken produced in the poultry farms had an arsenic content of 0.77 ppm and eggs had an average arsenic content of 0.38 ppm. Both are much higher than the permissible limit. The authorities need to crack down on the poultry farms immediately,” said the senior researcher at WBUFAS.
It is not just chicken eaters who are at risk, but each one of us. Chicken faeces are commonly used as fertilizer on croplands. The bacteria present in chicken litter, and in the soil, converts the excreted organic arsenic into its inorganic form. Research from the University of Alberta, published in Science of the Total Environment, found that arsenic from the feed transferred easily from chicken bodies to poultry litter. Because poultry litter is commonly used to fertilize soil, it can lead to increased concentration of arsenic in plants grown in soil fertilized with chicken manure, generating public health issues (Rutherford et al., 2003). 70-90 percent of arsenic in poultry litter becomes water soluble, meaning, it can readily migrate through soils and into underlying groundwater. Poultry litter containing arsenic is also fed as a protein source to beef cattle. So, the legal practice of feeding arsenic to poultry can add to the arsenic contamination of other foods as well.
Arsenic use promotes antibiotic resistance. Infectious disease concerns are heightened by the fact that poultry producers routinely use feed additives that include both antibiotics and arsenic components. Doctors, and the entire medical fraternity, need to take a lead in this campaign demanding poultry raised without the use of arsenic. The FSSAI and the Drug Controller must withdraw its approval of arsenic feed additives as an unnecessary public health risk. Europe shows us it is possible to raise poultry without arsenic.
The only possible method for control is to ban farm feeds and other products with arsenic. This should cover not just the hugely popular Roxarsone and Nitarsone but Arsanilic Acid, Carbarsone and other related compounds. Ensuring compliance to such a ban is possible through stringent monitoring standards, by regularly testing chicken meat and eggs and inspecting pharmaceutical factories. There cannot be negotiation on how much, or which kind, of arsenic humans can consume, when we need not consume arsenic at all.