Chicken Litter Incinerator Causes Toxic Waste

United Poultry Concerns

March 30, 2015

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 700 million pounds 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.



10 Responses to “COMMENTARY
Chicken Litter Incinerator Causes Toxic Waste”

  1. Peter Metcalf on April 1st, 2015 12:45 pm

    I disagree that “the plight of these wonderful birds” is the heart of the matter. For a child, limited to a view of its own backyard, perhaps it is. Or perhaps there are other hearts of the matter with such a limited perspective, such as wealth, convenience, and immediate gratification of avarice, to name a few.

    The heart of the matter is humanity itself. Concern for humanity brings to personal awareness the “global disaster” that adversely affects the lives of perhaps 3 billion people – all but the upper .00001%, if that, and interestingly, eventually even that miniscule percentage will find life precarious or somehow “less” if the rest of humanity capitulates to calamity. Already, people are dying as a consequence of climate change and other aspects of ecological changes and imbalances, while others are objecting to major changes of policy and personally unhealthful lifestyle that affect not only chickens, but all creatures, including human.

    Opening one’s heart to the plight of chickens can be life changing, but suggesting it is the “heart of the matter” as if the rest of the article was beside the point, is certainly not persuasive to most people who might consider becoming vegan or vegetarian, or changing some aspect of their lives, perceptions, or consciousness – even the very general notion that at least some animals merit greater consideration. As a vegan, I frequently encounter this bias for intelligence when in the presence of diehard carnivores.

    I recommend a broader outlook that transcends emotional ties to perspectives from the backyard.

  2. Janet Sturgis on April 1st, 2015 8:24 pm

    Please do a little further reading. I do believe arsenic (contained in an antibiotic as the organic form) was removed from commercial chicken feeds several years ago. It seems that arsenic was being deposited in the chickens’ livers in the more toxic inorganic form. Also, gasification is a much different process than inceneration. The two process terms should not be used interchangably. The gasification process is a viable option for the remediation of sewage treatment plant, septic tank pump-out, etc., waste and is considered “green” energy. The leftover slag can be used for building materials, etc.

    Unfortunately, the greatest global disaster is overpopulation. It seems our war on famine and deadly disease has resulted in populations that have exponentially outgrown world resources, no matter what they may choose to eat. Even vegetarian/vegan diets have their pitfalls. Rice worldwide is heavily contaminated with arsenic, and foodstuffs must still be transported to cities and other population centers that do not have the climate, open space, or whatever for food production.

  3. Mike Kuzma on April 2nd, 2015 9:50 am

    Ms. Sturgis, are you suggesting we let famine and deadly disease flourish? Sure sounds like it.

  4. Janet Sturgis on April 2nd, 2015 10:59 am

    No, Mike, not at all. The point is everything has a downside. There are no perfect solutions. For instance, GMO crops were originally seen as an answer to the world hunger problem. Vegans/Vegetarians risk arsenic poisoning if consuming more than one or two servings of rice or rice products per week. As I mentioned, not everyone can grow their foods and “eat locally.”
    I wish folks posting here were a little more concerned about access to adequate wholesome foods by the poor here on ESVA. Organic and locally sourced foods are not inexpensive options.

    The roadside produce vendors are gone, thanks to the Highway Dept. and zoning. These served as readily available fresh food for many and as a source of income for the vendors. Even food production and distribution has become gentrified. Northampton County needs to start thinking out of the box to solve our economic and social issues. People here need good paying jobs and careers. Raising taxes on the already overtaxed and shoving zoning changes down our throats to pander to a few is not the answer. For instance, I would like to see the soon to be vacated hospital building turned into an environmental education facility.

  5. Wayne Creed on April 3rd, 2015 9:17 am

    In 2013, the FDA banned roxarsone, carbarsone and arsanilic acid from use in animal feeds, due to higher than accepted levels of inorganic arsenic being present in the livers of “broiler” chickens. However, other arsenic-based drugs that are approved for use in food-producing animals (poultry and swine) include nitarsone, arsanilic acid, and carbarsone. These drugs, meant to aid against disease, all have forms of organic arsenic — the form of arsenic that is less toxic and not carcinogenic — as their active ingredient.

    Whether or not levels of arsenic may still be present in chicken litter, and how they matter, can certainly be debated. From a sustainable engineering standpoint, burning poultry litter may actually produce as much or more toxic air emissions than coal plants. Analysis conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that a 57 MW poultry litter combustion plant was permitted to emit levels of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide per unit of power generation higher than those for new coal plants. Another byproduct of burning chicken litter is dioxin (a known human carcinogen).

    The liter incineration issue also speaks volumes to the political clout leveraged by Agribusiness. The technology to produce clean energy from bio-waste certainly exists, if you are willing to make the capital outlay. Waste-to-energy company Blue Sphere recently began a waste-to-energy production in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the facility will produce 5.2 megawatts of clean energy from organic food waste (stuff that usually ends up in landfills). Estimates by the National Resources Defense Council state that close to 40 percent of food is wasted in the US every year ($165 billion). Blue Sphere sells this electricity to leading electric companies through long-term power purchase agreements.

    See North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Air Quality Division, “Comparison of emissions from controlled coal and biomass combustion,” Air Quality Committee Meeting, North Carolina Environmental Management Commission,Raleigh, NC, March 10, 2010, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Integrated Science
    Assessment for Particulate Matter (Final Report).”

  6. Janet Sturgis on April 3rd, 2015 11:42 am

    I am NOT in favor of waste incineration. The link above explains what is being done in the UK. Northampton County would be the perfect place for innovative technologies like gasification etc., as we would be starting from scratch. Our economic development efforts should expand into these new territories. Let’s get out our phones and pencils and look for money for these and similar projects. Water reclamation is another technology well suited to our needs.

  7. Michael LaBelle on April 8th, 2015 1:25 pm

    My company, Mighty Grow Organics, has a solution to the Eastern Shore’s chicken waste problem. We are already in production in SW Alabama, turning some of the areas chicken litter into an easy to use, nutrient dense, OMRI listed organic fertilizer. It can be transported and spread just like any other fertilizer, yet is organic, and can be mixed with synthetic fertilizer as needed for large scale row crop farming.

    We are NOT a waste disposal company. We go into the marketplace and buy the raw materials to make our product. While our operation is relatively small compared to the amount of waste available, it is scalable and is an environmentally sound means of handling the raw litter.

    If anyone is interested in discussing this concept with me, please contact the CEO of Mighty Grow Organics through my company’s website. Just search for Mighty Grow in Fruitdale, Alabama. That way I am not promoting my company website in this comment.

  8. Bobby Roberts on April 8th, 2015 4:13 pm

    There’s probably a solution, somewhere in the letters above, to safely getting rid of chicken manure. A solution that doesn’t involve on-the-cheap incinerators in poor people’s backyards. A solution funded by the ones who profit from the chicken products. A solution that’s located at the areas already involved with chicken profits. And none of those solutions belong on the farm fields next to towns and houses in Northampton County.

  9. Jim Welch on April 9th, 2015 7:39 pm

    With all due respect Janet have you read this report on “poultry waste gasification impacts on the environment and public health” link below?

    It’s a tricky issue. To date I’ve not seen any real level of competence exhibited on very simple problems, like building a building that really needs to be built, then doing proper maintenance on that building once constructed so it doesn’t become unsafe and fall apart. So to think that Northampton County is capable of pioneering environmentally sound and fiscally balanced chicken manure disintegration is really pushing way beyond the limits of the current BoS or the county management team. There certainly is a way to do what you suggest I believe, but it doesn’t involve government interaction in my opinion.


  10. Janet Sturgis on April 9th, 2015 10:11 pm

    Let’s make it clear. I am NOT in favor of poultry agribusiness in Northampton County. My comments were directed at remediation of sludge from sewage treatment, pump out, and perhaps food wastes (household, restaurant). I am also in favor of water reclamation and other technological means of improving and protecting the environment. These technologies are in use all over the world and are considered green technologies.
    It may interest some to know that a mass emailing, slandering and insulting me, was sent to over 100 people tonight, due to my comments concerning the issues. Shame, shame, shame that you (and you know who you are) need to resort to such Taliban like tactics.