March 28, 2012
A bill to ban Roxarsone and other arsenic-based drugs from Maryland poultry production (H.B. 167) was undermined just hours before it passed the House of Delegates on Monday. An amendment adopted by the House states that the ban will not apply to any arsenic-based drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under federal law, all drugs—including those that contain arsenic—must be approved by FDA before they can be sold. Because the amendment exempts all FDA-approved drugs, the amendment exempts all arsenical drugs. The bill would no longer protect Marylanders and consumers of Maryland chickens from increased arsenic exposure if companies begin using Roxarsone or an alternative arsenic-based drug once again.
Until last year, poultry companies routinely fed Roxarsone to chickens to make the birds grow faster and to make the color of their meat more appealing to consumers. The arsenic in Roxarsone can accumulate in the meat and organs of chickens that receive this drug. People who consume these tissues consume the arsenic as well.
Feeding Roxarsone to chickens also causes them to excrete arsenic in their waste, which can run off to surface water, leach into groundwater, and be blown from poultry operations into rural communities by wind. All of these are potential pathways of human exposure to arsenic.
Last summer, FDA announced that it had found higher levels of inorganic arsenic—a form of the element known to be carcinogenic—in the livers of chickens treated with the drug than in the livers of untreated chickens. This was the first study to demonstrate that raising chickens with Roxarsone leads to the accumulation of inorganic arsenic in chicken tissues. It provided further evidence for what many public health scientists already knew: using Roxarsone increases the cancer risk for humans.
From its study, FDA concluded that using Roxarsone leads to a “completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen.” The agency then took tepid steps to end use of the drug, persuading its manufacturer, the drug company Pfizer, to voluntarily suspend its sale.
FDA did not withdraw its approval of Roxarsone, however. This means the drug may still be used whenever Pfizer decides to return it to market. Withdrawing a drug approval typically encounters stiff opposition from the drug’s manufacturer. Rather than fight Pfizer, the agency persuaded the company to voluntarily suspend sale for the time being. This decision did not reflect the health risk posed by continued use of the drug; it was purely a matter of administrative convenience. In a meeting last year, FDA officials told me they were no longer studying the issue and have no further plans to examine or take action on any other arsenical drugs.
This is what makes H.B. 167 so important—and what makes the recent amendment so damaging. As introduced, the legislation would have banned the use of Roxarsone and other arsenic-based drugs regardless of what Pfizer decides to do. As amended, the bill will have no effect whatsoever. Roxarsone remains an FDA-approved drug and will still be legal if the amended bill passes. It would be better if the Senate did not pass the now-meaningless House bill so public health scientists and advocates can return to Annapolis next year—the fourth year they will have done so—and push for something real.