Natural Toxins in Global Food Supply Threaten the Health of Underprivileged Children

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Certain foodborne toxins are becoming a burden to worldwide health and especially among underprivileged societies. New studies have linked aflatoxin to serious negative health effects in addition to vaccine resistance.

According to recent research by the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), as part of its Global Disease Burden Caused by Foodborne Chemicals and Toxins symposium at the 2019 SRA Annual Meeting, foodborne arsenic, lead, cadmium, and methyl mercury is associated with the global burden of disease. The symposium provided updates to a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) publication, which analyzed the disease burdens caused by these toxins.

Impaired Response to Infections

The study found that the global attention on infectious diseases had foreshadowed the greater impact caused by foodborne chemicals and cancer-causing toxins besides cardiovascular and neurological illnesses is significant. The 2015 study found foodborne arsenic, methyl mercury, lead, and cadmium resulted in more than one million illnesses, 56,000 deaths, and more than nine million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) worldwide. The study revealed Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands (Western Pacific B) were the most impacted sub-region.

Aflatoxin is a toxin produced by mold that grows on corn and various nuts, including peanuts and tree nuts such as almonds and pistachios, causes liver cancer in humans at a higher rate than alcohol. Research has now revealed that aflatoxin also harms humans’ immune systems, resulting in an impaired response to infections. A Michigan State University found that up to 155,000 liver cancer cases globally, each year, are caused by aflatoxin, but aflatoxin also increases inflammation and dampens antibody responses to viruses. Felicia Wu, Ph.D., from Michigan State University, said: 

“This might explain why the success of vaccines in low-income countries worldwide has been poor […] corn and peanuts are staple foods throughout much of Africa, Central America, and Asia; and since many resource-poor populations can’t afford to throw moldy food away, we suspect many children worldwide are exposed to high levels of dietary aflatoxin.”

Serious Health Threat

Aflatoxin is a poisonous substance produced by certain kinds of fungi (molds) found naturally worldwide; they can contaminate food crops and pose a serious health threat to humans and livestock. Aflatoxin also poses a significant economic burden, causing an estimated 25% or more of the world’s food crops to be destroyed annually.

Long-term or chronic exposure to aflatoxin has several health consequences, including:

  • Aflatoxin are potent carcinogens and may affect all organ systems, especially the liver and kidneys; they cause liver cancer and have been linked to other types of cancer – AFB1 is known to be carcinogenic in humans; the potency of aflatoxin to cause liver cancer is significantly enhanced in the presence of infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV);
  • Aflatoxin is mutagenic in bacteria and has the potential to cause congenital disabilities in children; ‹ children may become stunted, although these data have yet to be confirmed because other factors also contribute to growth faltering, e.g., low socioeconomic status, chronic diarrhea, infectious diseases, malnutrition;
  • Aflatoxin causes immunosuppression, therefore may decrease resistance to infectious agents (e.g., HIV, tuberculosis);

What you can Do 

  1. Moldy foods are potentially contaminated with aflatoxin and therefore are possibly harmful when consumed. The molds do not just grow on the surface but penetrate deep into the food. To reduce exposure to aflatoxin, the consumer is advised to:
  2. Carefully inspect whole grains and nuts for evidence of mold, and discard any that look moldy, discolored, or faded.
  3. Buy grains and nuts as fresh as possible; that have been grown as close to home as possible and have not been transported over a long time.
  4. Buy only reputable brands of nuts and nut butter – aflatoxin molds are not entirely killed by processing or roasting so that they can show up in products, e.g., peanut butter.
  5. Make sure that foods are stored properly and are not kept for extended periods before being used; and

Try to ensure his/her diet is diverse; this helps to mitigate aflatoxin exposure and improves health and nutrition. Consumers who lack dietary diversity need to pay extra attention to minimize the risk of high exposure to aflatoxin. For example, extensive aflatoxin exposure has been reported from areas where people get a major part of their daily calorie intake from maize; this foodstuff is commonly contaminated with aflatoxin and needs to be handled properly both before and after harvest.

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