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Backyard Chickens, Eggs, and Lead

Thank you Jennifer, who emailed us to share her experiences with detecting lead in their backyard chickens' eggs.

For me, this all started with Tamara Rubin's piece in the Portland Tribune (http://www.portlandtribune.com/opinion/story.php?story_id=123801660877902600).  A friend (also with chickens) pointed it out to me and we wondered if we should be concerned. Honestly, it had never occurred to me that my chickens might be consuming lead, but the article made sense. Since my daughter was up for her 4-year checkup, I had her tested for lead (for the first time) and I got a test too. My test came back as a "1" (the lowest possible) and hers came back as a 3. According to someone I spoke to from the Portland Lead Line, most kids average between one and three.  The official "level of concern" is 10, although there is much argument over whether this is too high (most people think it is). Therefore, a 3 is cause for mild concern and further investigation (she shows no signs of lead poisoning; most signs don't show up until levels reach higher than 10, but there are still potential long-term effects from low lead levels).

So I had my backyard chicken eggs tested. The results came in today - .2, .3, and .4 parts per million. These levels are very similar to the eggs tested in the only academic study I'm aware of (http://jvdi.org/cgi/reprint/15/5/418.pdf). Their highest egg yolk lead level was also .4 ppm (400 ppb), which lead them to conclude that "Eggs and chicken tissues containing significant concentrations of lead are a potential human health hazard, especially to young children. Repeated consumption of contaminated eggs from a family owned flock could provide a continuing dietary source of lead." As a control, they tested eggs of chickens that had not been exposed to lead paint, and their levels were much lower. Lead does not naturally occur in chicken eggs, so these levels *do* represent a problem. (For comparison's sake, the FDA limit for lead in "candy consumed frequently by children" is .1 ppm).

We live in a house in NE Portland. The house was built in 1920 (so plenty of lead paint), and it was completely renovated about 7 years ago - I suspect not using the safest lead paint removal methods. In addition, our neighbor's garage backs onto our back yard. I tested the peeling paint on this ancient garage and it clearly showed the presence of lead. I have since fenced off the area to my chickens, so I wonder if their levels will eventually drop.

 I thought that other moms with chickens would be interested in these results. I want to make it clear that I am very "urban chicken positive" and am not suggesting that we ban backyard chickens and replace them with corporate egg farms. (On various blogs there seems to be a perception that any slight of backyard chickens must be driven by agribusiness interests). I love my three hens - Dolley, Martha & Abigail. I am planning to test the soil for lead to find out if it is concentrated in certain parts of my yard that I could fence off or remediate.  Meanwhile, I will be buying my eggs at New Seasons (I'm not a shill for them either) and occasionally making egg white omelettes and meringues (lead does not concentrate in egg whites). After I remediate, I'll test our eggs again. I should note that if you do have lead in your eggs you should not compost the egg shells because lead concentrates in the egg shells and in the yolks. (And whatever you do, don't eat your girls!).

Comments

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good point!! this would also tie in w/ home gardens w/ similar buildings close by.

Yes. There's a lot of information out there about soils. Speaking of soils, I take back what I said about composting the eggs. Our eggs have .2 ppm lead; soil on average has about 100 ppm, so I don't think that composting the eggs would have much effect on lead levels. Also, organic matter seems to have some mitigating effect on lead; it's one way people can lessen the amount of lead in their soils.

To put this in context, I figured out that our eggs have between 3 and 7 micrograms of lead per egg. The "maximum total daily load" of lead an adult may consume (according to the FDA, which figured this out in relation to consuming shellfish) - is 75 micrograms. For kids, it's 7. So while I don't feed our daughter our eggs now, I do think it's probably fine for my husband and I to have a few a week.

I have lots more technical information on this if anyone is interested.

thanks for sharing this w/ all of us! i will make sure to pass it along to our friends with hens.

Where did you get your eggs tested? Was it expensive?

I got them tested at Wy'East Environmental Laboratories on SE 11th. It cost $30 an egg. I think there are other labs in town that do it as well.

DHS and DEQ run a program called ORELAP that accredits laboratories to a national standard. Attached is a link to laboratories that are accredited. When you get your results it's important to note what their detection limits are compared to your results which can add a lot of uncertainty. They should also be able to provide you with the quality control results that must be run with your sample to verify precision and accuracy.

http://oregon.gov/DHS/ph/orelap/docs/acclab.pdf

I'm currently exploring this issue as well as we have a 1940 house with paint chips in the soil. I, too, read Rubin's article, and unfortunately hadn't considered the issue before getting our chicks two months ago. For now, we are keeping them away from the house in a movable coop. We will be getting our soil tested soon, and I'm looking into solutions such as remediation as well.

Karli

I think that I heard that the lead sits in the first six inches of soil. Here is a great website community that you could contact to confirm that. We are next to the freeway so I know our levels are higher in the soil but our coop location is away from any houses and I plan to dig down the six inches or more to remove the soil.
http://www.growing-gardens.org/portland-gardening-resources/chickens.php

We keep chickens for eggs near our 1910 house. I had the soil tested for lead. 434 parts per million, which is 34 parts higher than the accepted "safe" level for areas children will play in. Since the chickens sure do seem to eat a lot of dirt, I had an egg tested. None detected. The testing threshold is 1 part per million. 1 part per million is considered safe for candy. Testing was done by Wy'East on SE 11th.

So, it's been almost 2 years since you posted this discussion, and I'm wondering How Did It All Turn Out? I am a suburban chicken keeping mom of 3 in an old house in an old neighborhood. Thanks.

Does anyone know where I could get some eggs tested near Pittsburgh, PA? (I live in Mt. Pleasant, PA, Westmoreland County specifically)

I live in Massachusetts and found out my paint shedding garage had lead paint. I had my eggs tested at the University of Maine, soils lab. Does anyone know if the lead levels of eggs goes down over time if exposure stops? My eggs were .1, .2 and .4 ppm.

I too live in Massachusetts and had my soil tested and it is in the Medium level. I have been trying to figure out where to get an egg tested, can you tell me who to contacted at the university of Maine? We are planing to create a raised bed for the coop and have stopped eating the eggs, but I would love to know if we can ever eat the eggs from these girls again?

Hi, Jennifer:

I am interested in the values you provided for the "maximum total daily load" of lead an adult may consume (according to the FDA, which figured this out in relation to consuming shellfish) - is 75 micrograms. For kids, it's 7). Can you post or send me an official link, or document that has these values? Thanks. my email address is zc2001@gmail.com

I live in Michigan and am having trouble finding a lab to test for lead in my chicken's eggs. If anyone knows of a place in Michigan or neighboring states let me know. I feel sad not being able to use our eggs.

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