Urban Chickens & Lead Poisoning


If someone were to ask me, “What has been the most unexpected subject you have learned about in your advocacy work?” I’d have to say lead paint hazards in the context of the Urban Chicken movement!

“Shoot the messenger.”

Backyard urban chicken farmers are proud to be doing something good for the environment and for their family. Keeping backyard chickens is viewed as a positive element of traditional homesteading, sustainability, and independence, so when (in an effort to protect the children of these urban chicken farmers) I cited research that suggested that some may be unknowingly feeding toxic eggs to their children – the inquiry…um…ruffled a few feathers!

I have since gotten so many inquiries about the subject that I have dedicated an entire area of my website to articles and links regarding the concern of urban chickens and lead paint!

What is the Concern with Urban Chickens

Historically, farm buildings were painted with non-toxic “milk paint.” Farmers have long known the damage that lead paint can do to their livestock. Many farm animals’ systems are more delicate than those of humans, so exposure to lead paint can quickly result in death – not a risk a farmer can afford.

When you take animals off of the farm and into the city (and away from the wisdom passed down among generations of farmers), you can end up introducing them into an environment with lots of hazards. Not only can there be deteriorating lead paint on homes, but renovations may have contaminated the soil.  The problem is compounded when urban “farmers” put their coops up against their house (or an older garage). It turns out chickens have a metaphorical “sweet tooth”—studies have found that chickens gravitate towards sweet tasting things and lead paint is sweet, so if they are near a source of lead paint (like the side of a building that also happens to be the wall of their coop) they will actually eat it directly off the wall and peck paint chips out of the soil!

There is a the scene in the Mom on a Mission video  showing me knocking on a neighbor’s door and testing the woman’s green exterior wall, the reason she asked me to test that wall was that her chickens had been pecking the paint off of that wall specifically and she was concerned it might contain lead.  It looked like a newer application of paint to me, so I was, in fact, very surprised to see that it instantly tested positive for lead… the chickens had gravitated right to it!

This is a problem because the lead can end up in the yolks of the eggs and can cause a very real threat to the children who eat them.

What to do if you have a pre-1978 home and backyard chickens:

  1. get your soil tested for lead
  2. get your eggs tested for lead (if you cannot find a lab that will test your eggs for lead in your area, please e-mail me and I will find you one: leadsafe@me.com)
  3. If the tests come back positive don’t eat the eggs; move your coop, replace your soil with uncontaminated soil
  4. NOTE: while building a coop out of recycled doors and windows from a building component salvage store might seem like an environmentally conscious choice – please test these things before you bring them home.  If they test positive for lead, leave them at the store!

Tamara Rubin

Winner of the Inaugural National Healthy Homes Hero award presented in June 2011 by a consortium of Federal agencies (including the EPA, CDC, HUD, USDA and U.S. Department of Energy), Tamara Rubin has been a childhood lead poisoning prevention advocate since her children were poisoned in 2005.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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