April 5

Arsenic and Old Legs… Chicken Legs, That Is

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Today’s New York Times contained an article by food writer Marian Burros entitled “Chicken With Arsenic? Is that O.K?” that points up yet another reason for eating natural or organic poultry, if you can get it.

The piece concerns renewed reports that arsenic (yes, that would be the same deadly poison sometimes used to exterminate rats and errant husbands) may be present in greater than allowable amounts in chicken. Not in all chicken–but some kinds of it. For decades and with the government’s stamp of approval, the toxic mineral has been added to some commercial chicken feed to kill parasites and promote greater appetite in the chickens to enhance their growth.

Chickens raised according to organic or natural methods aren’t fed arsenic-laced grain and, fortunately, the outing of the problem has recently prodded even some of the big boys to give up using it, although many producers still do. As Ms. Burros correctly points out,

Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest chicken producer, has stopped using arsenic in its chicken feed. In addition, Bell & Evans and Eberly chickens are arsenic-free

I was really pleased to see that Tyson, headquartered in the Northwest corner of my home state of Arkansas, has sworn off. And according to Ms. Burros, even McDonald’s has proclaimed that it will no longer use chicken fed arsenic. As for chicken from sources that haven’t taken the ‘no arsenic’ pledge, it’s caveat emptor, buyer beware!

When it is used, the chickens eat the mildly poisonous feed, the arsenic finds its way into chicken meat, we eat the chicken, and thereby some additional quantity of a deadly poison gets into us…albeit, in usually very small amounts.

What’s minute? Well in people eating chicken regularly–and more people are eating more chicken than ever before–that could mean 1.5 – 5 micrograms (that’s 1/100th of a milligram) of arsenic per day. Should we be worried? We probably shouldn’t panic, but even little amounts add up, and we must bear in mind that tainted chicken isn’t the only source of arsenic we might consume.

Arsenic also occurs in minute quanitites in most ground water and therefore in unfiltered drinking water. It’s especially plentiful in the water of areas of great geothermal intensity, such as those that are loaded with natural hot springs. The water in places, such as Yellowstone National Park, with its geyers and bubbling hot mud springs or Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, where I grew up, has reputedly got a bit more arsenic than its fair share.

Centuries ago, when Hernando Desoto passed through the area that is now Hot Springs, the indigenous peoples (and afterward, presumably the Spaniards, too) relied on the natural pools of thermal waters to heal their ills. In its hey day, people came from all over to Hot Springs to “take the waters,” by which they meant both bathe in and drink the naturally hot water from the mineral springs.

In the 19th and early 20th century, in the time before antibiotics came into being, treatment for most every malady consisted of the judicious application of hot or cold. And for this reason, medical spas and sanitariums popped up in areas, like Hot Springs, blessed with natural thermal springs. In addition, physicians administered all manner of toxic substances from arsenic to mercury in controlled amounts to kill microbes–or perhaps patients, if they got carried away with their dosing. Taking the waters in Hot Springs was a two-fer; the water comes burbling from underground at an average temperature of 143 degrees F, already filled with minerals of every sort, including a little trace of arsenic.

I recall as a kid riding my bike to a friend’s house along a route that took me across a pretty little burbling stream called Arsenic Springs. Even as a bike-riding adolescent, I’d heard of arsenic and knew it as something poisonous. Consequently, I always held my breath as I rode across the bridge over the spring, fearing, I suppose, that some sort of noxious vapor emanating from it might do me in. Then someone told me the word was pronounced Ar-SEEN-ic Springs, not AR-se-nic Springs, and that gave me some measure of relief. Not enough, however, to be willing to drink the water from it, although maybe that’s why Tyson can swear off using feed with arsenic; they water the chickens with natural water from an arsenic spring. (Just kidding.)

In point of fact, I’ve been given to understand in later years that in the Arsenic Spring, the amount of arsenic in the water was actually so low as to be almost undetectable. So much for my fears of a poisonous miasma, however the name was actually pronounced. Even in the open hot springs that burble forth at the foot of the tufa outcroppings behind the city’s famed Bath House Row, the levels or arsenic are minimal. And I have drunk my share of that water, both from the bath houses and the public drinking fountains along the street they line with, to the best of my knowledge, no ill effects.

Locals and visitors alike queue up with their milk jugs and sundry bottles to capture the waters flowing from the downtown fountains, but why go to all that bother when right up the street you could enjoy a delicious, cool glass of Mt. Valley Spring Water, one of America’s first and best bottled waters, the one that I grew up drinking and that followed Bill Clinton to the White House. Clean of taste and so far as I know, pretty free of arsenic. Much to my delight, I’ve just recently learned that the favorite water of my childhood now comes in a lightly bubbly variation, soon to make its debut on shelves across the land. I tasted it last month at the Natural Foods Expo and like its (much) older ‘still’ sibling, it is dee-lish!

But I digress…

I can personally attest to the immediate (if temporary) restorative powers of sipping water from the hot mineral spring of the Arlington Hotel resort and Bath House, while enjoying a long hot soak in it, followed by a really good massage.

I guess the long and the short of it is that if I’m to be exposed to arsenic, I’d prefer soaking these old legs in a steaming tub of hot mineral water to eating a chicken leg laced with it any day!


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