Vomitoxin and Human Health Safety

June 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The following article was written by OSU Extension Pathologist Pierce Paul for the June 28, 2010 CORN Newsletter available at http://corn.osu.edu/newsletters/2010/2010-19

Ohio’s wheat harvest is in full swing and concerns about vomitoxin are being raised, especially in areas hit by head scab. Data from our field survey showed that this year’s scab incidence ranged from 3 to 60%, so fields with the highest incidence will likely be the ones with the highest levels of vomitoxin.

Why is vomitoxin harmful and how toxic is it?

Vomitoxin research on humans is prohibited for legal and moral reasons, but we do know the effects of vomitoxin on animals with similar body systems to humans (such as pigs and primates). Low levels of vomitoxin (0.05 to 0.1 mg/kg body weight) can cause vomiting in pigs – this would be similar to exposing a 175lb person to 0.0003 ounces of vomitoxin (a VERY small amount!). In humans, scabby grain has been associated with food poisoning symptoms (nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness and fever) 30 minutes after consumption. Long-term and continuous exposure to even lower levels of vomitoxin may cause dangerous reduction in appetite, weight loss, damage to the gastro-intestinal tract and impair the immune system.

There may be several dust masks available at the local farm supply or hardware stores, however not all of them are recommended for agricultural use. The best protection is provided by the two-strap dust masks that are labeled as N95. They should also be identified as NIOSH or MSHA approved (National Institute for Occupational Safety Health and Mine Safety and Health Association). The N95 models mean that 95% of the smallest particles – ones that can get into the lungs where they cause damage – are prevented from going through the mask.

What about straw from scabby fields, will it contain mycotoxins?

Yes. Straw from scabby fields does contain vomitoxin and other mycotoxins. Results from studies done at the University of Illinois (with laboratory tests done at North Dakota State University) confirmed that vomitoxin levels may exceed 2 ppm in wheat straw, even in field treated with fungicide. As a result, the same caution exercised when handling and feeding scabby grain should be exercised with dealing with moldy straw. Get the straw tested before using it for silage or bedding. The risk of contamination is much lower when straw is used for bedding; however, you should still avoid straw with very high levels of vomitoxin, since it is impossible to tell how much the animals will munch on the straw.

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