Urban Fowl: Community Garden Chickens Laying Lead-Filled Eggs

More research needs to be done to determine how the contamination occurs.
Could this chicken’s eggs be a health hazard? (Krystal South/Getty)
Oct 8, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

I’m not a big egg eater, and I’ve definitely never thought about raising chickens in my backyard. Based on a report in yesterday’s New York Times, that might be a good thing.

“New research has found elevated levels of lead in eggs from chickens in New York City’s public neighborhood gardens. Preliminary results from a New York State Health Department study show that more than half of the eggs tested from chickens kept in community gardens in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens had detectable levels of lead, unlike their store-bought counterparts.”

The researchers, including Henry M. Spliethoff, a research scientist in the Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment for the environmental health center of the State Health Department, tested 58 eggs from community gardens because those eggs were easily accessible and provided them with enough eggs to meet the criteria of their study.

MORE: Think You're Buying Eggs From Chickens That 'Roam, Scratch and Play'? Think Again

The Times notes that, “Mr. Spliethoff plans to publish his study later this year after he finishes more analysis of data collected on soil and feed, in hopes of learning how those variables might contribute to the eggs’ lead content.” But that doesn’t immediately help people who keep chickens in their backyards and can’t know whether their eggs might be contaminated unless they have them tested themselves.

Slate weighed in with the thought that homeowners shouldn’t “shun all urban chickens, but the general principle is this: If you're going to conduct agricultural pursuits in your backyard, you'd be well-advised to get your soil checked first.”

“So what is an health-conscious chicken owner to do?” asks Gothamist. “Test your chickens! That's what father of two Michael Brownstein did. Not that it helped much! He had all of his six hens tested and found that while some were lead-free some had a wee bit of lead in 'em. Unsure how to proceed he took his test results to his kid's pediatrician and...they all decided it was fine for the tots to eat the eggs.” (As an aside, Gothamist gets my vote for best headline related to this story: “The Incredible Lead-able Egg.”)

But on a more serious note, there may be real reason for concern. A study published by Sage Publications looked at an investigation of 20 hens from a small farm flock in Iowa who had been exposed to chips of lead-based paint in their environment. The Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory examined five selected chickens over a period of nine days for concentrations of lead in blood, eggs (yolk, albumen, and shell), and tissues. They concluded that, “Lead contamination of egg yolks and edible chicken tissues represents a potential public health hazard, especially to children repeatedly consuming eggs from contaminated family-owned flocks.”

So while a number of people cited in the Times article seemed to side with Mr. Brownstein, others might want to heed the words of Tamara Rubin, a mother of four boys in Portland, Oregon. She founded the Lead Safe America Foundation after her children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

She told the Times, “It just takes a microscopic amount of lead to poison a child . . . Government agencies don’t want to frighten the public when, in fact, I think we need to be a little bit frightened into action. We need to be made aware of the scope and impact of lead poisoning in our lives.”

Personally, I’m sticking to my low egg intake, no chickens allowed in the backyard, policy.

What do you think about this study? Would you eat eggs from chickens raised in urban backyards?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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