Environmental Health Promotion
This is the fourth and last mini-blog of the series “Environmental Health Promotion” that is part of the 2023 Environmental Sustainability report that emphasizes global health challenges that pose a significant threat to both the environment and human health. The objective is to raise public knowledge of environmental sustainability and global health challenges and offer individuals opportunities to prevent and reduce their exposure to these concerns. With only one world and no alternative planet, even simple actions count for the benefit of everyone. We can all play a part in preserving the world’s health, ensuring that our children and future generations can experience the same quality of life we have or even better.
You can find the other blogs related to the report here:
Mycotoxins are toxic substances produced by various types of fungi that can contaminate food and feed crops, posing a significant risk to human and animal health. These toxins can cause a wide range of health problems— from acute to chronic toxicity— depending on the type and level of exposure. Mycotoxins can be found in a variety of food products, including cereals, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Most of which can cause gastrointestinal disorders, immune system suppression, neurotoxicity, and even cancer.
The growth of fungi and the formation of mycotoxins can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as temperature, humidity, and moisture content of the food. It can also be affected by the storage and processing conditions of these products. Inadequate drying and storage techniques can lead to fungal growth and mycotoxin production, which can be especially problematic in warm and humid climates. Most mycotoxins are highly resistant to chemical and physical processes— such as boiling, freezing, and cooking—making them difficult to eliminate from contaminated food products.
Chemical factors such as fertilizers and fungicides commonly used in agriculture can also influence mycotoxin production. It has been demonstrated that certain chemicals can stimulate the generation of mycotoxins in crops, leading to increased levels of contamination.
How serious is the problem?
Mycotoxin contamination is a problem that affects all countries. While it is true that mycotoxin contamination is often associated with countries in the global south due to less favorable agricultural practices and lack of food safety regulations, countries in the global north are not immune to this problem. For the latter, mycotoxin contamination is mainly associated with animal feed. This is a major concern as contaminated animal products such as milk, meat, and eggs can pose a serious health risk to consumers. Intensive animal production systems, where animals are often fed with low-cost feeds, are particularly vulnerable to mycotoxin contamination.
Apart from animal feed, mycotoxin contamination can also occur in food products such as cereals, nuts, and dried fruits. These products are frequently imported from global south countries, where mycotoxin contamination is more prevalent.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that mycotoxins affect about 25% of the world’s food supply. This estimate may vary depending on the region and type of food being considered. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, mycotoxin contamination can be as high as 80%.
One of the most concerning aspects of mycotoxins is their potential to cause cancer. Certain mycotoxins have been identified as carcinogens, meaning they can initiate or promote the growth of cancer cells in the body. It is important to note that the severity of mycotoxin-related health problems can vary widely depending on the type and amount of mycotoxin exposure, as well as the individual’s age, health status, and genetic makeup. Some individuals may be more susceptible to mycotoxin toxicity than others, making it even more crucial to minimize exposure to these harmful substances.
What can I do?
To reduce the risk of mycotoxin exposure, the World Health Organization recommends several preventative measures that individuals can take. These include inspecting certain food items, discarding any moldy or damaged foods, and properly storing and consuming a variety of foods.
- Inspect whole grains, dried figs, and nuts, particularly those like corn, wheat, rice, peanuts, pistachio, almond, walnut, coconut, and hazelnuts that are known to be susceptible to mycotoxin contamination. It is important to carefully examine these items for any signs of mold, discoloration, or shrinkage.
- Discard any foods that look moldy, discolored, or shriveled, and purchase grains and nuts that are fresh. This can help to minimize the risk of consuming foods that may be contaminated with mycotoxins.
- Avoid damaging grains before, during, and after drying and storing them, as damaged grains are more vulnerable to mold invasion and mycotoxin contamination. Proper handling and storage of grains can help to reduce the risk of mycotoxin contamination.
- Ensure that food is properly stored is essential for preventing mycotoxin contamination. This includes keeping food dry, away from insects, and not too warm. Proper storage can help to prevent the growth of fungi that produce mycotoxins.
- It is recommended to avoid storing food for long periods before using it and to consume a wide range of foods. This can help to reduce the risk of overexposure to any one particular mycotoxin and promote overall dietary diversity and health.
By being more mindful and adding just a few more steps to your daily food and meal preparation routine, you can ensure a safer and healthier life for yourself and those around you. Through your own knowledge and experience, you have the power to assist the most vulnerable and in need.
Author: Fion Chan*
Edited by: Jasmine Therese Arcilla
*Fion is SOGH’s Environmental Sustainability Manager. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and is pursuing a Master of Medical Science in Global Health at the University of Gothenburg.