The following article originally appeared as the Cape Charles Wave commentary "Chicken Litter Incinerator Causes Toxic Waste"
In the Cape Charles Wave on March 22, Ken Dufty commented on "Wayne Creed Pays a Visit to United Poultry Concerns" regarding a proposal to build a chicken litter incinerator in Northampton County "aimed at giving the industrial chicken farms a purported solution for the millions of pounds of chicken manure generated annually" on the Eastern Shore. In Maryland alone, the chicken industry produces 350,000 tons of poultry litter each year, of which 300,384 tons exceed the capacity of local cropland to assimilate the phosphorous and other components of the waste, according to a study cited by Food & Water Watch in their May 2012 report, "Poultry Litter Incineration: An Unsustainable Solution."
"Poultry litter" is the mixture of fecal droppings, antibiotic residues, heavy metals, cysts, larvae, dead birds, rodents, and sawdust in which the chickens are forced to sit for six weeks before they are slaughtered. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, used poultry litter has four times the nitrogen and 24 times the phosphorous found in pig and dairy cow operations. Dumped on the environment, this mountain of toxic waste burns fragile plant cells, poisons the water, and spawns excess algae that consume aquatic nutrients. The excess algae block sunlight needed by underwater grasses and suffocate fish in the process of decay.
Used poultry litter - which is nine parts manure by the time it is scraped out of the chicken houses after several years of accumulation - has been found to be "rich in genes called integrons that promote the spread and persistence of clusters of varied antibiotic-resistant genes," according to a May 2004 article in Farm and Dairy.
The Food & Water Watch report on poultry litter incineration cites studies showing that burning poultry litter for electricity on the Delmarva Peninsula would almost certainly depend on taxpayer subsidies. An analysis by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources suggests that burning poultry litter "may actually produce as much or more toxic air emissions than coal plants." The emitted poultry litter toxins are carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, volatile organic compounds, dioxin, particulate matter, and arsenic.
Inhalation of particulate matter contributes to respiratory infections and heart disease in both poultry and people, and dioxin is an established carcinogen. In his comment to the Wave, Mr. Dufty focuses particular attention on arsenic, which the industry puts in chicken feed to control intestinal coccidiosis, a ubiquitous disease of filth and stress in the poultry production environment. In addition, arsenic is fed to the chickens to promote abnormal weight gain and blood vessel growth for heavier, pinkish chicken flesh. Excreted into the litter, arsenic enters fertilizer, soil, and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration rescinded the agency's approval for three arsenical drugs commonly added to farmed animal feed, but the arsenic compound, nitarsone, is still allowed and in use. Tyson and Perdue claim to have stopped feeding arsenic "regularly" to their birds, whatever that means, but nothing they say regardless should be taken on trust. A 2009 study in North Carolina cited by Food & Water Watch showed that poultry litter incineration releases arsenic into the atmosphere. This is a concern for any community where a poultry litter incinerator would be located.
Food & Water Watch warns that Maryland, Virginia, and other states with poor, rural areas, already burdened with environmental pollution and human illnesses associated with industrial farming, are being asked to bail the poultry industry "out of its massive waste problem by financing poultry litter incinerators." County and state governments should, of course, refuse. But a narrow view of "just not in my backyard" is not a solution. Animal agriculture is a global disaster. As consumers - more importantly, as citizens of the planet - we cannot wait for government and industry to "do something" for which they have no incentive as long as the money – our money - keeps coming.
What I especially like about Ken Dufty's comment is his recognition that the environmental concern is an ethical issue of personal accountability and opportunity, and that "the plight of these wonderful birds" is the heart of the matter which we personally and collectively can do something about by choosing to be vegetarians, best of all vegans, and encouraging others to join us. In this way, everyone can be, as Henry David Thoreau said about abolishing slavery, "a friction against the machine" - in this case the incinerator.
Karen Davis, PhD, is the Founder and President of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Machipongo.