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

In the February 12th Tribune's "Sustainable Life" section, 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 we are now (apparently) the leader in Urban Chickendom, it seemed like a good time to voice a relevant concern: about 85% 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 contractor(s) 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 ppm; after the exterior paint was improperly removed from our Irvington home (to prepare it for painting) our soil lead levels spiked to the 3,000-5,000 ppm 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 & 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 them 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 (lead poisoning from urban chickens), including quotes from scientists, advocates and professionals in the lead poisoning prevention field and links to related scientific studies go to: http://www.mychildrenhaveleadpoisoning.com/Site/urbanchickens.html

Tamara Rubin

Portland mother of 4 boys—3 with lead poisoning (former urban chicken farmer, incidentally)

* Chickens have a magnificent sense of taste, terrible sense of smell.  Their taste buds are designed to inform the bird of the minerals and nutrition content of what they are passing through their beaks.  This is why they often snatch something only to drop it... they are sampling with taste. (from http://www.fredsfinefowl.com/startingchicks.html)  (Other studies I found online show chickens have fewer tastebuds than humans (300 vs. 1000) but these same studies also show they are drawn to sweet things as they do not have taste buds to detect bitter things.)

This is the letter to the editor that I submitted to the Portland Tribune in response to their article.  I understand that their reporter Steve Law is working on integrating it into an upcoming printing of the paper’s Sustainable Life section.