Fungal toxins are poisoning Africas children says new report

first_imgChildren in Africa and parts of Asia are falling victim to an “invisible” epidemic—fungal toxins in food that can stunt their growth and delay their development, according to a new report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The two main toxins—aflatoxin and fumonisin—are present in dangerously high levels in groundnuts, cassava, and corn, which make up the bulk of children’s diets from Benin to Kenya.The toxins have long been known to cause liver cancer and, in high enough concentrations, death. But this is the first time that they have been shown by multiple studies to contribute significantly to childhood stunting.“It’s a massive problem” largely unknown in developed nations, says J. David Miller, a fungal toxicologist at Carleton University in Ottawa and one of the report authors. “Enormous amounts of money are spent [in the United States and Western Europe] to keep you from being exposed to these kinds of toxins.” Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) The toxins, byproducts of the Aspergillus and Fusarium fungi, are endemic in cornfields around the world. The difference is that U.S. and European producers do all they can to eliminate the contaminants to meet strict standards for human consumption—20 parts per billion (ppb) in the United States and just 2 ppb in Europe. Fields are heavily treated, and crops are processed so that any remaining toxins are leached out. Food that isn’t up to standard is used as animal feed or burned. Altogether, U.S. food producers spend between $500 million and $1.5 billion each year managing fungal toxins.But in countries where food shortages are chronic, few farmers have the ability to treat their crops and enforcement is lax. The best-quality products are sold for export. “It makes me cry when I’m in Nampula in Mozambique and the women are there on the floor, sorting the grain by hand, trying to get the very best grain together and then send it to Europe,” says Peter J. Cotty, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Tucson, Arizona. “And it gets rejected by Europe. But it gets into the European bird feed market, which allows 50 [ppb], which no one in a developed nation would ever allow people to eat.”People back home are stuck with food with even higher levels of toxicity—sometimes in the thousands of ppb. Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Researchers aren’t certain about exactly how the toxins affect children, but the new report brings together six recent studies that show that children with high levels of toxin biomarkers in their blood are shorter and weigh less than other children their age. They also grow at a slower pace than their peers. Preliminary studies suggest the effects may have something to do with immune system activation and the way the body absorbs nutrients.The report also lays out recommendations for controlling the problem, including treating fields with natural biocontrols, improving food storage conditions, and diet diversification. It also calls for the development of rapid screening methods that would be able to quickly detect the toxins in blood.Miller says that the problem is as much social as scientific. “It just seems to be intractable for a whole variety of reasons,” he says. “If you look in the scientific literature, 50 years ago, public policy people said more or less exactly what we’re saying now. And here we are.” Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe Rates of stunting among children under 5 are as low as 2.1% in the United States and as high as 59.3% in Afghanistan, according to the latest World Health Organization data. Data from the World Health Organization Emaillast_img

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