In the mid-19th century in Europe, a rather strange theory arose — the idea that eating arsenic could improve one’s health. It originated with the discovery that peasants in the Austrian mining region of Styria liked to mix a little of the poison into their morning coffee. As reported in 1855, the miners had discovered that exposure to arsenic — an element naturally occurring in metallic rocks — brought “beauty and freshness to the complexion.”
This pink-cheeked ideal of health led to what I always think of as the arsenic-eating insanity days of Victorian times. Arsenic dyes (it makes a beautiful green) colored kitchenware, candy, cakes and puddings. It went into medicines and tonics. Mountain climbers sprinkled it over their buttered bread for extra vigor. Prostitutes swallowed arsenic solutions to give themselves blushing complexions.
In his 1911 book, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defined arsenic as “n. A kind of cosmetic greatly affected by the ladies; whom it greatly affects in turn.” The point being, of course, that despite its faddish uses, arsenic remained one of the most effectively lethal poisons known, killing by neatly disrupting cellular metabolism. Paradoxically, at the same time that Victorian prostitutes were cheerfully swigging Fowler’s Solution, arsenic was also the main ingredient in a wide variety of pesticides, designed to kill anything from flies to rats.
And today, while people don’t deliberately add the poison to their diet, we still encounter arsenic in our daily lives. It is still used as a pesticide. And we still eat it with our food, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving that make poultry a centerpiece of the celebration.
Most commercial-grade poultry feed today contains an arsenic-based pesticide. Like the Victorians, farmers use the poison because of its ability to improve appearances — in this case because arsenic’s potent effect on blood vessels makes the chicken and turkey we buy look pinker and therefore fresher.
The principle of 19th century arsenic consumption was based on the idea that though arsenic was lethal in high doses, it posed no real danger to humans in tiny amounts. This remained the standard when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the addition of an antimicrobial arsenic compound, usually known by the trade name Roxarsone, in poultry feed in 1944. Some years later, in 1951, the FDA also approved the use of Roxarsone to improve the cosmetic appearance of bird meat.
Modern science is not nearly so enthusiastic, however. Yes, arsenic is fantastically poisonous at high doses — it is a classic homicidal poison, in fact — while showing little obvious effects in small amounts. But over the last few decades, scientists have come to appreciate that at continual low doses, it’s also a nasty human carcinogen. A link with cancer was discovered when very specific malignancies were found in people living in areas where arsenic-dense rocks contaminate drinking water supplies.
Both industry spokesmen and government regulators point out that no one has ever found evidence that dining on poultry has the same effect. Further, they add that the arsenic formula fed to chickens and turkeys (organic, bound up with carbon) is not the same as inorganic arsenic, the form considered most dangerous to people. Unfortunately for that argument, researchers have found that as chickens and turkeys metabolize Roxarsone, one of the byproducts is, in fact, inorganic arsenic. A study three years ago at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University found this to occur rather rapidly, as measured by waste products.
And arsenic does turn up in trace amounts when grocery store poultry packages are tested. A 2006 project by a Minnesota-based advocacy group, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, found the poison in 55% of chicken parts (breast, thighs and livers) tested. Just to give you a few more numbers: The highest amount — 21.2 parts per million — occurred in generic brands; the least in organic products. The maximum amount allowed by the FDA in chicken meat is 2 parts per million, set some decades ago. For those who want another comparison, the EPA considers 10 parts per billion in drinking water to be high enough to pose a cancer risk.
Although the European Union banned Roxarsone in 1999, all efforts to regulate it out of the U.S. market have failed. A year ago this week, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced the Poison Free Poultry Act, which would have established a similar ban. “Nobody should have to wonder if [the family’s] Thanksgiving turkey is secretly carrying a carcinogen,” Israel said in introducing the bill. Despite a long list of supporters, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the bill has effectively gone nowhere. A petition filed by the trade policy institute and the Center for Food Safety urging the FDA to reconsider its standards has been waiting for a response for nearly a year.
No one is arguing, of course, that American consumers are in imminent danger by taking some helpings of turkey this holiday. There are also obvious ways to avoid arsenic intake from poultry — eat vegetarian, eat organic, buy from some of the producers that have renounced the additives, such as Tyson or Perdue Farms. Or perhaps we can reassure ourselves with some good ?Victorian era science: the ?belief that a little arsenic consumption is a fine part of a ?human diet. After all, it’s an ?idea that clearly guides our government regulations, even to this day.
Deborah Blum’s latest book is “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”