Little Lead Hens

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The first thing I did, the day we signed on our house, was order the chicks. In the excruciating suspense of the wait—while the assessor determined the house’s value, and the mortgage broker checked our numbers, and the seller hemmed and hawed about our offer—chicken shopping was something I could do to make this dream seem real. I flipped through my books, scoured the internet, made lists of the breeds I most desired, and even came up with the names. Violet. Myrtle. Gerty. Oona. Bessie. Camille.

And then it happened. We were homeowners.

I made the order, and then I started packing. And then I started thinking about the soil.

Soil isn’t generally the first thing people think about when they get chickens, but one day, as I was envisioning our future gardens, it dawned on me that now that we had finally convinced the bank to buy us a house, now that I could finally keep a backyard flock, there might be one more thing that could come between me and my dream of fresh organic eggs: Lead.

Even in 1910, the year the clapboards on our house were first hammered into place, childhood lead poisoning from the consumption of paint chips was already known to cause seizures, comas and even death. There was a rustling of activism in the 1930s, but the paint industry denied the science and turned the finger of blame on parents for allowing their children to eat the leaded paint chips in the first place. It wasn’t until 1976 that legislation was finally passed that would ban lead-based paint for good.

In the meantime, painters were scraping leaded paint into the soil around my house, and then brushing more leaded paint onto the clapboards, and then one day scraping that off, too. I needed to know how much lead was in my soil, because I needed to know if the dirt my birds would be scratching and pecking for grubs and grit was hopelessly contaminated.

So I ordered a little carton from my state’s Cooperative Extension. And one day, even as the books were still piled in their boxes in the living room, I dug out my trowel and excavated a few inches down into the dirt in the front garden and lifted some of the dark, damp soil from the bottom of the hole. It looked innocent enough, but only a lab test could give me the truth about my soil. I took another sample from the back of the house, which had been added on in the ’60s. And I shipped my dirt off to the lab.

Two weeks later, the results arrived in the mail. The contamination in the front garden was high. In the back, where my chickens would be penned, the lead levels turned out to be “moderate.” So.

Lead isn’t just poisonous to children. It is known to cause reproductive problems in adults, as well as kidney damage. In fact, the heavy metal can do harm to every organ system of the body. I didn’t want any of it in my eggs. Would the lead in our soil make its way up the food chain and into our frying pan?

The chicks arrived via US Mail in a peeping little cardboard box punched with air holes. At first, they lived in a large brooder under a heat lamp in my study. Frank set aside the electrical work that needed to be done, the stereo equipment that needed setting up, the bookshelves that needed assembling, and got to work designing and building a chicken coop. Optimistically, he built three nest boxes. Even if our hens’ eggs were contaminated with lead, they would still lay. Every day they would lay their little leaden eggs.

And what would we do with them, our own little Superfund eggs? We wouldn’t eat them, that we knew. We wouldn’t feed them to our dog or our cats; we wouldn’t throw them into our compost.

The months passed, and Violet, Myrtle, Gerty, Oona, Bessie and Camille grew into six beautiful young hens. Soon enough, we found a large brown egg nestled in the wood shavings in one of the nests. One by one, each hen began to lay: small pink-tinted eggs, medium white eggs, large dark brown eggs, large turquoise eggs, tiny white eggs. It was an egg cornucopia.

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But were they safe to eat?

When finally spring came and the snow melted away and the ground thawed, I collected one egg from each chicken, scrambled them all together, and then poured some of the mixture into a Ziploc baggie. I deposited that in a yogurt container and packed it all up in another shipment to the Cooperative Extension. The rest, I poured into the frying pan and ate for breakfast.

This time, the lab would test the egg itself. In two more weeks, we would know if the eggs our diligent hens were producing were safe for consumption.

Or if the slow poisoning had already begun.

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