Detecting poultry waste in the Pocomoke River watershed

2013-2014 E²SHI Seed Grant

Research Team

Ellen Silbergeld, Professor, Department Environmental and Engineering, School of Public Health
Contact Dr. Silbergeld

Grace BrushProfessor, Department Environmental and Engineering, School of Engineering

Yaqi You, former Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department Environmental and Engineering, School of Public Health 

As industrial or high density food animal production has developed over the past 80 years, many of these practices have impacted ecosystems primarily due to the lack of management of animal wastes and waste disposal. At present, no regulations exist that require pretreatment of such waste or stipulate conditions of disposing it on land The Delmarva Peninsula (which occupies most of Delaware and eastern portions of Maryland and Virginia) is the home to the most intensive broiler poultry production in the U.S. totaling between 600 and 800 million birds per year. This production volume results in a vast amount of solid waste - approximately 1.7 kg per bird - that is the largest single waste input to land and water systems in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The research by Ellen Silbergeld, Grace Brush and Yaqi You examines the ecological impacts of this industry on microbial systems in the Pocomoke River over time since industrial broiler production started in the 1920s. 

To examine the ecological impacts, a sensitive and specific marker of poultry inputs is required to distinguish this waste source from other animals, including humans. Doctors Silbergeld, Brush and You developed and tested methods at the molecular level to detect the presence of poultry (specifically broiler chicken) wastes in environmental compartments, such as soil and river sediments, in the Pocomoke River watershed located within the peninsula. By developing sensitive and specific methods for evaluating environmental contamination associated with poultry, the study aimed to relate their ecological findings more clearly to the poultry source, and to estimate the magnitude of these inputs. They hope their results will provide guidance to other research on poultry and the health of the Chesapeake Bay, including studies by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Delaware.


Article: Towards a More Sustainable Agriculture: Challenges from Chicken Farms on the Maryland Eastern Shore. The Johns Hopkins Water Magazine, 2010.


You Y. and Silbergeld E.K. (2014). "Learning from agriculture: understanding low-dose antimicrobials as drivers of resistome expansion." Frontiers in Microbiology, 5, pp. 284.

Silbergeld, E.K. (2016). Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chicken houses and farm fields lie along the Pocomoke River which empties into the Chesapeake bay.
Photo credit: Ian

One planet, one experiment.
— Edward O. Wilson