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Chickens eating lead not so sustainable

POST SCRIPT • Urban chicken advocates need to care about what they're consuming
by: L.E. BASKOW, Naomi Montacre feeds worms to the chickens she keeps in a homemade coop in her North Portland front yard. An expert on lead poisoning warns people to be careful that their chickens aren’t injesting lead from old house paint.

Urban chickens: sustainable, locally grown protein or brain damage sunny side up on your child's breakfast plate?

In the Tribune's article 'Urban chickens top green pecking order' (Feb. 12) in Sustainable Life, Portland was cited as the nation's Mecca for urban chickens - a sustainable food source and great urban pet: 'Portland has the highest urban chicken population in the country.'

Are you the owner of urban chickens? Have you noticed how much they like to peck around the drip-line of your house? Have you observed how they eat anything they find in the dirt - including chips of peeling lead paint from your home?

Most urban residential chicken owners are not'connecting the dots,' and since Portlanders are now (apparently) the leader in urban chickendom, it seemed like a good time to voice a relevant concern: about 85 percent of our urban housing stock, especially the houses with yards for chickens, are pre-1978 housing. Most of these had/have lead exterior paint. Even if the home has been repainted, it is extremely unlikely that the contractors always used lead-safe techniques and left your soil 'lead-free.'

A case in point: a lead level for soil considered safe for a child's play area is under 400 parts per million; after the exterior paint was improperly removed from our Irvington home (to prepare it for painting), our soil lead levels spiked to the 3,000 to 5,000 parts per million range - highly contaminated!

The misconception that the main cause of childhood lead poisoning is children eating paint chips (in Oregon, lead poisoning is more commonly caused by children inhaling'invisible'lead dust from remodeling) is rooted in fact: lead tastes sweet, and if chips are present, animals - especially chickens - are drawn to it.

You don't have to see paint chips for your soil to be contaminated.Lead is extremely toxic - it takes only two grams of finely ground lead dust (less than two teaspoons) to heavily contaminate an area the size of a football field.

What about chickens on farms? Barn and farm paint is typically non-lead-based 'milk paint.' Farmers have known for generations that lead paint can kill or sicken their livestock. Most free-range farm chickens and eggs are therefore lead-free.

There have been several studies and scientific articles discussing urban-raised, lead-contaminated chicken and eggs. Please be aware.Get your soil tested (about $20 per test spot), and make sure it is clean/lead-free before eating the eggs of your residential free-range friends.

Don't let chickens peck near your house; keep their pen as far away from any painted structure as possible.Better yet - consider buying locally farmed, organic, free-range eggs from the store and don't risk inadvertently poisoning your own children in the name of personal sustainability.

For a further discussion of this problem and links to related scientific studies, go to www.mychildrenhaveleadpoisoning.com/Site/urbanchickens.html .

Tamara Rubin is a Sellwood mother of four boys - three who have suffered from lead poisoning - and is a former urban chicken farmer.