Newly published research indicates that fumonisin, a natural fungal toxin that grows on corn, can cause fatal human birth defects and miscarriages. The fungal toxin may explain a cluster of neural tube defects-including spina bifida deformations and dead babies with undeveloped brains-in South Texas more than a dozen years ago. Their Hispanic mothers ate large numbers of tortillas made from home-grown corn that was not protected with fungicides.
Fumonisin was not discovered until 1988, though farmers have long reported horses going mad and pigs getting pneumonia from “moldy corn disease.”
Recent studies have also detected high levels of fumonisin in corn-and high levels of neural tube birth defects-in parts of South Africa and China where organic or “natural” corn is a diet staple.
The new study, reported in the Journal of Nutrition, surveyed 409 Mexican-American women in the Brownsville, Texas, area. Of these, 184 had had babies with neural tube defects and 225 had had healthy babies. The survey found those who ate several “home-grown” tortillas a day, early in their pregnancies, were 2 1/2 times as likely to have babies with neural tube defects as those who ate only one tortilla per day.
The birth defect link dropped for women who ate even more tortillas, says co-author Dr. Katherine Hendricks of the Texas Department of Health. However, she says that could be because their pregnancies ended in miscarriages after severe uterine damage to their fetuses.
Scientists now know that fumonisin inhibits the mother’s dietary uptake of folic acid. A lack of the folic acid can cause the fatal neural tube defects that killed the Brownsville fetuses. Until now, that cluster of fatal births had been blamed on air pollution. General Motors and other companies had settled a lawsuit over the birth defects cluster and their Brownsville factories’ emissions for $17 million.
The new U.S. research was supported by the March of Dimes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
Underscoring the fumonisin danger, British authorities recently removed several brands of organic corn meal from supermarket shelves because they were contaminated with nearly 20 times the safety limit of the toxin. The European Union has recently set a new safety limit for fumonisin in foods at 500 parts per billion. The organic corn meals were contaminated at an average of nearly 9,000 ppb. The fumonisin levels in 20 conventional corn meals tested by the British government averaged a tiny 130 ppb, one-half of one per cent as high as the organic corn meals.
Fumonisin has also been demonstrated to cause cancer in laboratory mice, at levels only modestly higher than were found in some of the recalled EU organic corn meals. At lower levels, it may contribute to liver and kidney damage.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no fumonisin safety limit, though it has a guideline of 2,000 parts per billion, four times as high as the EU’s new limit. Since the FDA has only a guideline, it has taken no enforcement actions on U.S. corn meal products. And may not even be monitoring corn meal products.
Fungi are a particular challenge for organic farmers. Their most effective fungicide is copper sulfate, which is synthetic but not very good at killing fungus. It’s also expensive, so many organic farmers don’t protect their fields with any fungicide at all.
Ironically, Europe has banned genetically enhanced corn, which has natural insecticides bred into its tissues. Less insect damage means fewer opportunities for fungal invasion of the grain, so the biotech corn has about 30 times less fumonisin than even conventional corn.
Once again, Nature has produced a far greater risk to human lives than man’s technologies. In this case, the child-saving technologies are the oft-condemned villains, pesticides and genetically enhanced crops.
Will the trial lawyers now reimburse GM and the other companies for their “air pollution” settlements?