Take mycotoxin health hazards seriously

Use masks and gloves when handling mycotoxin-contaminated corn

High rates of mycotoxin in this year’s corn crop might be financially unfortunate – but don’t let it ruin your health.

Mycotoxins, that is, can cause major health problems if inhaled through the dust generated during grain harvesting and handling. It’s a hazard that’s neither new nor uncommon, and one that requires extra attention when risks are higher than usual.

Serious sickness

While mycotoxins can pose problems if consumed through food – an issue of particular note for livestock producers – inhaling the fungi-derived poison can be very serious. Indeed, David Miller – an authority on mycotoxins and professor in the Department of Chemistry at Carleton University – says inhalation can even be a more potent route of exposure than injection. Inhaled mycotoxins, he says, can severely hamper lung function, leading to what has been known in the past as “farmer’s lung.” It’s a sickness that may not be deadly, but can be extremely debilitating. Recovery can also be quite prolonged.

“It’s like being in a mouldy building. This isn’t hypothetical, it’s real,” says Miller. “The risk around mouldy crops is much greater.”

Preventing Exposure

Farmers and others working with grain are at the greatest risk when working in semi-enclosed spaces, loading wagons, and outside the combine more generally.

Precautions to prevent exposure to moldy grain, as well as to minimize contamination of facilities and equipment, must be taken according to a chapter written by Miller in a World Health Organization publication on mycotoxins:

  • Use protective gloves when handling contaminated material.
  • Wear a mask – one recommended by local authorities – as well as eye protection and coveralls.
  • Wash hands with soap and water after working.
  • Handle material under well-ventilated conditions, upwind of dusts generated by farm equipment
  • Maintain procedures for handling and disposing of mould-infected material.

Miller says significant outbreaks of mycotoxin sickness do happen, with the last bad epidemic occurring in Western Canada in 1994. Despite the fact that provincial and federal governments have been working on the issue for some time – there are regulations pertaining to grain dust, handling safety policies, outreach materials, and so on –cases still arise every year.

He reiterates the need to treat mouldy crops differently, and that farmers need to take the threat seriously.