Court Case over Litter Arsenic Link to Leukaemia

ARKANSAS, US - In a second case, attorneys are discussing whether arsenic in the anticoccidial product, roxarsone, could have been transmitted via droppings and poultry litter to school children, causing them to develop leukaemia.
calendar icon 5 May 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

Poultry companies added dangerous arsenic to chicken feed, but they never warned poultry growers, people who spread chicken litter or children at schools, an attorney told jurors on 1 May, reports NWA News.

Fayetteville attorney, Jason Hatfield, said that the bags containing the arsenic-laced feed additives contain danger warnings, but poultry companies chose not to pass it along.

"Only the companies knew the dangers," said Mr Hatfield, who represents a Prairie Grove man suing Tyson Foods, George's Farms, Peterson Farms and Simmons Foods in Washington County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit filed in 2003 by the parents of Michael ('Blu') Green, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1999, alleges poultry producers used chicken feed with roxarsone, a feed additive that includes arsenic, which led to cancer-causing litter.

Attorneys for the poultry companies argued that roxarsone has been safely mixed with feed for 50 years to help keep chickens healthy and is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. They claim that the testimony of world-class scientists will show that the plaintiff's case is based on faulty science.

Mr Green lost his previous case against the feed additive maker but this second trial is against the poultry companies, which were dismissed from the last case before it went to the jury for deliberation.

Following a three-week trial in 2006, a jury took 21 minutes to reach its verdict in favour of feed additive maker, Alpharma.

However, an Arkansas Supreme Court decision last May ruled that poultry producers can go to trial in the lawsuit, reversing the judge's granting of a pretrial motion that eliminated poultry producers as defendants.

The plaintiff called four witnesses on 1 May who testified that poultry litter that was spread near the Prairie Grove Public Schools during the 1990s.

Attorney Hatfield told jurors that poultry litter spread on pastures near the schools during the 1990s caused Mr Green and three others to develop leukaemia, according to NWA News.

He said that the four who have been diagnosed with leukaemia were exposed to the arsenic-laced dust that was created by the litter that was spread on nearby fields. He said witnesses will testify that the dust was so bad at times that teachers would not let school children out for recess.

Mr Green played basketball on outdoor courts at the school, where he was exposed to dangerous dust, he said.

"These kids were getting it from angles," Mr Hatfield said. "The litter was being spread over and over."

He dismissed the poultry companies claim their FDA-approved feed additive is safe.

"It's not FDA approved to dump on children. You have to bring common sense in the jury box. When you dump carcinogens on kids, some of them will get sick," Mr Hatfield said.

He said that dust samples taken from the attics of homes show high levels of arsenic, which he said experts will testify can be linked to roxarsone contained in the chicken feed.

Mr Hatfield told jurors that the defence will challenge and criticize all of the plaintiff's testing but offer none of their own test results. He also dismissed the suggestion that anyone can file a lawsuit, saying how expensive it has been for his clients to bring this case to trial.

"We've spent $400,000 on tests. They've never taken tests," he said.

He told the jury Mr Green's expenses in this case have already exceeded $1 million, including medical bills of $740,000. He said they expect at least $130,000 in future medical expenses if the leukemia stays in remission.

He asked only for "what's fair" for the punitive and other damages in the case, Hatfield said.

Steven Quattlebaum, an attorney for Tyson Foods, agreed with Attorney Hatfield that exposure to high levels of arsenic is known to cause cancers but he said the studies show that it increases the risk of cancers of the lung, kidney, bladder and skin, not leukaemia.

He said that arsenic is everywhere. It is the 28th most common element in the Earth's crust and is safe at low levels.

"The dose makes the poison," Mr Quattlebaum said. "You can drink too much water."

He said that the air and soil samples taken by the plaintiff do not show elevated levels that show an increased risk. The dust samples taken from the attics of homes are unreliable, as their experts will testify, he said.

He questioned why they did not take hair samples to find out if Mr Green had been exposed to high levels of arsenic over time.

Scientists who have been to Mongolia to study people who have been impacted by high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in water will testify that their research does not show an increase in leukaemia, he argued.

Experts will testify that chronic myelogenous leukaemia, the disease with which Mr Green has been diagnosed, is not caused by exposure to radiation, chemicals or infections, he said.

"There is no known way to prevent it from happening," Mr Quattlebaum said. "In other words, it just happens sometimes. It's not caused by environmental exposure."

He also told jurors that none of the physicians who treated green will testify that his leukemia was caused by arsenic. The only witnesses for the plaintiff who claim this will be doctors who make their living testifying in court in cases like this.

The NWA News reports concludes that defence attorneys also argued that poultry litter has been spread all across north-west Arkansas for decades and there is nothing unique about Prairie Grove that makes it a greater risk. They also pointed out that the Arkansas Department of Health conducted its own investigation and found that the percentage of leukaemia cases in Prairie Grove was about the same as in the rest of the state.

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