As part of the study, the research team analyzed aflatoxin levels in sunflower seeds and cakes produced in seven regions of Tanzania between 2014 and 2015. The researchers found that almost 60 percent of seed samples and 80 percent of cake samples exhibited aflatoxin contamination. The experts also found that 14 percent of seeds and 17 percent of cakes had aflatoxin levels above 20 parts per billion. Some samples even contained several hundred parts per billion.
The fungi was also known to infect other crops such as corn, peanuts, almonds, and pistachios, the researchers noted. The study was conducted in Tanzania, suggesting that aflatoxin contamination may increase the risk of adverse health conditions in many low-income countries, the research team added. According to the researchers, aflatoxin was one of the most potent liver carcinogens, and was associated with 25,000 to 155,000 deaths worldwide. Studies that detect and limit aflatoxin exposure in sunflower seeds may help stem liver disease and save lives in areas where sunflower seeds and byproducts were used, a researcher noted.
"These high aflatoxin levels, in a commodity frequently consumed by the Tanzanian population, indicate that local authorities must implement interventions to prevent and control aflatoxin contamination along the sunflower commodity value chain, to enhance food and feed safety in Tanzania. Follow-up research is needed to determine intake rates of sunflower seed products in humans and animals, to inform exposure assessments and to better understand the role of sunflower seeds and cakes as a dietary aflatoxin source," said study co-author Gale Strasburg in UPI.com.
"Billions of people worldwide are exposed to aflatoxin in their diets, particularly in places where food is not monitored regularly for contaminants. Our previous work with the World Health Organization on the global burden of foodborne disease showed that aflatoxin is one of the chemical contaminants that causes the greatest disease burden worldwide," study co-author Felicia Wu added in another article in ScienceDaily.com. In order to address the issue, Wu established the Center for the Health Impacts of Agriculture.
The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has long established that aflatoxin contamination is detrimental to the general public's health. (Related: The silent toxin in food that provokes cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and more.)
In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified aflatoxin as a group-1 carcinogen. According to the WHO, the aflatoxin is a highly-toxic compound that contains immunosuppressive, mutagenic, teratogenic, and carcinogenic properties. The compound primarily targets the liver.
The FDA has also listed the compound in its Bad Bug Book. According to the FDA, aflatoxins were significantly associated with the onset of acute necrosis, cirrhosis, and carcinoma of the liver in various animal studies. In humans, the compound was known to induce acute liver damage, hemorrhage and edema, as well as impaired food conversion, metabolism issues and even death. Aflatoxins were also linked to a plethora of other fatal conditions such as pulmonary edema, cerebral edema and blood abnormalities as well as kidney damage, cardiovascular damage and death.
The FDA has also listed a number of foods susceptible to aflatoxin contamination such as cottonseed, mil and pecans as well as walnuts, grains, and peanut products.