MONDAY, Jan. 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Indulging in your favorite chicken dish may expose you to higher levels of arsenic than you think, government researchers say.

Arsenic levels in young chickens, or "broilers," may be three to four times greater than in other poultry and meat, they report in the January issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

While the amount of arsenic people ingest by eating chicken appears to be well below tolerable daily intake levels, it is higher than previously recognized and may require government agencies to reassess total arsenic exposure, the authors conclude.

The study is the first to assess average levels of arsenic in chicken and then calculate how much of the substance people are ingesting when they consume different amounts of chicken.

Arsenic is an approved feed supplement that farmers use to control intestinal parasites in chickens, particularly young chickens.

"If we're taking in more in chicken, then there's, in a way, less room to take in arsenic through the water," explains study author Tamar Lasky, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture epidemiologist now with the National Institutes of Health.

Chicken is a staple of the American diet. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita consumption nearly doubled -- from an average of 40 pounds per year to about 78 pounds a year, reports the National Chicken Council.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in food, drinking water and the environment. But exposure to high levels of the inorganic form, such as that found in wood preservatives, insecticides and weed killers, can be deadly.

Studies have linked long-term arsenic exposure in drinking water to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver and prostate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is also associated with cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunologic, neurologic and endocrine problems.

"This study appears to be much ado about nothing," says Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council. The paper makes numerous assumptions -- not based on data in the study -- about arsenic levels in chicken livers and muscle tissues as well as the relationship between organic and inorganic arsenic, he says.

Arsenic in poultry feed, which represents the less toxic organic form, "is used responsibly and safely by poultry producers," Lobb adds.

Lasky and colleagues from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service used national data measuring arsenic in chicken liver samples to estimate the amount present in muscle tissue, the part of the chicken that is most frequently consumed.

From 1994 to 2000, average arsenic concentration in young chickens ranged from 0.33 to 0.43 parts per million.

The authors multiplied their estimates of arsenic in chicken muscle tissue by different levels of chicken consumption.

A person who eats an average amount of chicken -- about 2 ounces a day -- might ingest 3.6 micrograms to 5.2 micrograms of inorganic arsenic and 5.6 micrograms to 8.1 micrograms of total arsenic a day, they found.

By contrast, the top 1 percent of the population that consumes about 12 ounces of chicken a day would get much more of the substance: some 21 micrograms to 31 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per day and 33 micrograms to 47 micrograms of total arsenic per day.

For someone weighing 154 pounds, that's 0.30 to 0.44 micrograms per kilogram per day of inorganic arsenic -- well below the tolerable daily intake of 2 micrograms per kilogram per day, but still a sizable portion of the total.

An expert committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization determines the tolerable daily intake for arsenic.

"This article is really meant to raise a bunch of questions for further investigation," Lasky says. "It's reasonable for consumers to say, 'We want to know more about this.'"

More information

Learn about arsenic at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while you can learn to eat safely at the U.S. government's FoodSafety site.

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