Marine biotoxins and climate change

I worry about food safety and so it seems do 60% of respondents in a global survey involving 150,000 people in 142 countries. However, while they are mostly concerned about the safety of the current food supply, I worry about the impact of climate change in worsening the food safety situation. We have already covered the impact of climate change on the accumulation of heavy metals and growth of moulds producing mycotoxins.

But of course there is more.

In this last blog in the series covering the food safety impact of climate change we will look at increases in the presence of marine biotoxins produced by blooms of harmful algae.

Toxins produced by some algal species

During recent decades, there has been an apparent increase in the occurrence of harmful algal blooms in many marine and coastal regions. Changes in climate may be creating a marine environment particularly suited to the growth of harmful species of algae. Two major functional groups of marine algae, or phytoplankton, are involved in causing toxic blooms – diatoms and dinoflagellates. There are also toxic cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, that are not strictly speaking algae but very similar in action.

Certain toxins produced by these organisms are particularly dangerous to humans. A number of illnesses are caused by ingesting seafood contaminated by the toxins.

The most important harmful algae and their poisoning syndromes include diatoms from the genus Pseudo-nitzschia (amnesic shellfish poisoning), and species of dinoflagellates from the genera Alexandrium, Pyrodinium, and Gymnodinium (paralytic shellfish poisoning), Karenia (neurotoxic shellfish poisoning), Dinophysis and Prorocentrum (diarrhetic shellfish poisoning), and Gambierdiscus (ciguatera fish poisoning). There are also cyanobacteria that produce a range of toxins that can affect humans drinking or swimming in contaminated water causing a similar range of symptoms. Their toxins include microcystin, nodularin, cylindrospermopsin, anatoxin-a, anatoin-a(s), lyngbyatoxin and saxitoxins.

As the names of the syndromes imply the toxins can cause memory loss, digestive problems, seizures, lesions and skin irritations, and finally paralysis that may include the respiratory system. Indeed an impressive list.

Some of these toxins can be acutely lethal and are among the most powerful natural substances known. They affect fish, birds and mammals including humans. Because these toxins are tasteless, odourless, and heat and acid stable, normal screening and food preparation procedures will not prevent intoxication.

Increase in the growth of harmful algae

Dinoflagellate abundances have increased to the detriment of diatom populations in some marine ecosystems linked to increases in sea surface temperatures. This can have serious consequences.

As an example a calculation was performed of the impact of climate change on the length of the period of toxic blooms in Puget Sound, an important area of shellfish farming. Results suggested that by year 2100 the period of optimal growth of the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella may potentially expand from 68 days to up to 259 days due to warmer water temperatures. This would have severe implications for regional food safety as A. catenella produces paralytic shellfish poisoning. It would totally close the area for shellfish harvesting for most of the year devastating the local economy.

Another example of a dinoflagellate known to generally favour warmer conditions is Gambierdiscus toxicus, one of the species producing ciguatoxin. Increases in ciguatera fish poisoning has been observed with elevated sea surface temperatures. Clinical signs in humans eating fish containing the toxin include gastrointestinal, neurologic, and cardiovascular signs. Gastrointestinal signs include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps. Neurologic signs include itching, pain, visual blurring, weakness, depression and headache. Cardiovascular signs include arrhythmia, bradycardia, hypotension, and cardiac block.

Cyanobacteria can reproduce quickly in favourable conditions, where there is abundant sunlight, still or slow-flowing water and sufficient levels of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus. In still conditions, surface water may form a separate warm top layer in which cyanobacteria is able to access sunlight and nutrients. If these combined factors are present for several days, cyanobacteria multiply and form large blooms. The problem seems to be getting worse. Polluted farm runoff continues largely unabated, and the climate crisis is producing warmer weather and water temperatures, along with more rainfall – all conditions that feed the blooms. News reports of blooms in the USA have increased every year since 2010, when there were a total of 71 stories about outbreaks. In 2018 there were 452 reports about harmful outbreaks.

Incomplete understanding

As already mentioned above harmful algal blooms usually increase during the warm summer months. As daily temperatures continue to rise, the number of days ideal for harmful algal growth increases. As the planet’s oceans warm, coastal regions are seeing more and more algal blooms, often worsened by fertilizer and manure that runs off from farms. With toxic algal blooms becoming more potent and lasting longer, scientists are taking a closer look at their links to a changing climate. What was once considered a summertime matter is now being considered a year-round issue.

However, the extent to which regional climate change will influence harmful algal bloom dynamics is uncertain as separating the effects of climate change from natural variability remains a key scientific challenge. Climate change pressures will influence marine planktonic systems globally, and it is conceivable that harmful algal blooms may increase in frequency and severity. Nonetheless there is only basic information to speculate upon in which regions or habitats harmful algae may be the most resilient or susceptible. 

We can continue to test for the presence of toxins in seafood as is currently the practice in many countries. But the potential escalation of outbreaks could easily overwhelm the system. Should we risk it? I for one worry about the future given the current trajectory of global warming.

Mycotoxins in a Changing Climate

Global climate change is an issue we should take very seriously now or it will threaten our future food supply. However, I am writing this in June 2020 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that is attracting all the attention. There are so far more than 6 million people affected worldwide and soon more than 400,000 deaths.

Most countries, but not all, have reacted with urgency to the acute situation with people movements severely restricted and huge amounts of money spent to support economies. More than one hundred attempts to develop vaccines agains the COVID-19 disease are under way to prevent future outbreaks.

Willingness to limit climate change lacking

We already have the “vaccines” or knowhow to prevent further escalation of the changing climate. Although climate change in the longer term will threaten food security, that is global access to food, and negatively impact food safety with the potential to cause much more pain and suffering, hunger and deaths, it is not getting the same attention as a novel acute disease.

There are many pathways through which climate related factors may impact food safety including: changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, ocean warming, and changes in the transport pathways of complex contaminants.

Food security might be the more serious challenge as sufficient access to nutritious food is already an issue in many parts of the world, but long-term quality of life is also threatened by food contamination. We have already covered accumulation of arsenic as an example of heavy metal increases in food caused by climate change. Here we will cover aflatoxin as an example of an increased threat from a range of mycotoxins as fungal growth is influenced by climate change.

Mycotoxin threat will increase

Mycotoxins are compounds naturally produced by a large variety of fungi (moulds) that can cause acute effects, including death, along with chronic illnesses from long-term exposure, including various forms of cancer. It has been estimated that 25% of the world’s yearly crop production is already contaminated with mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are known to occur more frequently in areas with a hot and humid climate.

Aflatoxins, which have the highest acute and chronic toxicity of all mycotoxins, assume particular importance. Aflatoxin produced by Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus is a genotoxic carcinogen, but is also a potent acute toxin, and is widely distributed associated especially with maize, groundnuts, tree nuts, figs, dates and certain oil seeds such as cottonseed.

Aflatoxins are a group of approximately 20 related fungal metabolites. They are heat stable and difficult to destroy during processing. Thus exposure, both acute and chronic, can have significant impacts on vulnerable groups, especially babies and children. Four aflatoxins – B1, B2, G1 and G2 – are particularly dangerous to humans and animals.

Health effects of aflatoxin exposure

Outbreaks of acute aflatoxicosis were reported in Kenya in 2004 with 125 deaths resulting from consumption of aflatoxin contaminated maize with repeated events in 2005 and 2006. Most recently several deaths attributed to aflatoxins were reported during the summer of 2016 in the United Republic of Tanzania.

However, chronic effects are much more common. Hepatocellular carcinoma, or liver cancer, is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, with prevalence 16-32 times higher in developing countries than in developed countries. Of the 550,000-600,000 new cases worldwide each year, about 25,000-155,000 may be attributable to aflatoxin exposure. Most cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and China with largely uncontrolled aflatoxin exposure in food.

The geographical areas subject to aflatoxin growth in maize and wheat are expected to change with temperature increases – it is predicted that aflatoxin contamination and the associated food safety issues will become prevalent in Europe with a temperature increase of +2°C.

Changes in contamination patterns

Aflatoxin contamination causes significant loss for farmers, businesses, and consumers of varied susceptible crops. Climate change alters the complex communities of aflatoxin-producing fungi. This includes changes in space, time and in the quantity of aflatoxin-producers. Generally, if the temperature increases in cool or temperate climates, the respective countries may become more susceptible to aflatoxins. However, tropical countries may become too inhospitable for conventional fungal growth and mycotoxin production.

Although some regions can afford to control the environment of storage facilities to minimize post-harvest problems, this happens at high additional cost.

Many industries frequently affected by aflatoxin contamination know from experience and anecdote that fluctuations in climate impact the extent of contamination. Climate influences contamination, in part, by direct effects on the causative fungi. As climate shifts, so do the complex communities of aflatoxin-producing fungi. This includes changes in the quantity of aflatoxin-producers in the environment and alterations to fungal community structure.

Fluctuations in climate also influence predisposition of hosts to contamination by altering crop development and by affecting insects that create wounds on which aflatoxin-producers proliferate. Aflatoxin contamination is prevalent both in warm humid climates and in irrigated hot deserts. In temperate regions, contamination may be severe during drought.

Public health threat

As usual prevention is much better than late action to repair already existing damage. This is especially important in at risk regions such as parts of Africa and Asia where the risks of exposure to mycotoxins may increase under predicted climate change conditions.

The combination of future food scarcity and contamination of a larger part of the food supply has the potential of creating an explosive public health threat.

Climate change and food safety


global-warming1What has global climate change to do with food safety you ask? Well quite a lot is the unfortunate answer. In a previous blog we have already described the increased risk of finding toxic levels of arsenic in rice due to global warming. Not convinced yet? Maybe the following quotes from a range of official global organisations can provide some compelling information for you to change your mind.

Opinions expressed by some official agencies

The world Health Organization (WHO) writes:

Climate change is likely to have considerable impacts on food safety, both direct and indirect, placing public health at risk. With changing rainfall patterns and increases in extreme weather events and the annual average temperature we will begin to face the impacts of climate change. These impacts will affect the persistence and occurrence of bacteria, viruses, parasites, harmful algae, fungi and their vectors, and the patterns of their corresponding foodborne diseases and risk of toxic contamination. Alongside these impacts, chemical residues of pesticides and veterinary medicines in plant and animal products will be affected by changes in pest pressure. The risk of food contamination with heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants following changes in crop varieties cultivated, cultivation methods, soils, redistribution of sediments and long-range atmospheric transport, is increased because of climate changes.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) writes:

Climate change poses significant challenges to global food safety. Long-term changes in temperature, humidity, rainfall patterns and the frequency of extreme weather events are already affecting farming practices, crop production and the nutritional quality of food crops. The sensitivity of germs, potentially toxin-producing microorganisms and other pests to climate factors suggests that climate change has the potential of affecting the occurrence and intensity of some foodborne diseases. Also, changing conditions may favour the establishment of invasive alien species harmful to plant and animal health. Surface seawater warming and increased nutrients input leads to the profusion of toxin-producing algae causing outbreaks of seafood contamination.

The transmission of infections or diseases between animals and humans (“zoonotic diseases”) is a major source of food safety risks. Environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall, humidity levels and soil can help to explain the distribution and survival of bacteria.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) writes:

There is a growing consensus that human activities may be changing our planet’s climate. These changes in climate have a number of possible implications for human health and welfare, one of which could be the safety of food.

It is impossible to accurately assess the full impact of climate change on food safety. However, it is likely that some effect on microbiological and chemical hazards will be seen. The extent of the risk posed by these hazards will depend on the type of hazard and the local conditions and practices.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) writes:

Climate change does not only imply increased average global temperature. Other effects of climate change include trends towards stronger storm systems, increased frequency of heavy precipitation events and extended dry periods. The contraction of the Greenland ice sheet will lead to rising sea-levels.

These changes have implications for food production, food security and food safety. It is widely understood that the risks of global climate change occurring as a consequence of human behaviour are inequitably distributed, since most of the actions causing climate change originate from the developed world, but the less developed world is likely to bear the brunt of the public health burden.

There is reason to believe that climate change can affect infection of crops with toxigenic fungi, the growth of these fungi and the production of mycotoxins. Given the great importance of this hazard, it is necessary that we understand what changes we might expect in order to better prepare ourselves to deal with this critically important issue.

Changes in climate may be creating a marine environment particularly suited to the growth of toxic-forming species of algae. Toxin-producing algal species are particularly dangerous to humans. A number of human illnesses are caused by ingesting seafood (primarily shellfish) contaminated with natural toxins produced algae; these include amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), diarrheic shellfish poisoning (DSP), neurotoxic shellfish poisoning (NSP), azaspiracid shellfish poisoning (AZP), paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), and ciguatera fish poisoning. These toxins may cause respiratory and digestive problems, memory loss, seizures, lesions and skin irritation, or even fatalities in fish, birds, and mammals (including humans).

Like EFSA, FAO also comments on zoonotic diseases such a hot topic with COVID-19 a prescient example:

Climate change is one of several ‘global change’ factors driving the emergence and spread of diseases in livestock and the transfer of pathogens from animals to humans.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) writes:

Climate change will have a variety of impacts that may increase the risk of exposure to chemical contaminants in food. For example, higher sea surface temperatures will lead to higher mercury concentrations in seafood, and increases in extreme weather events will introduce contaminants into the food chain through stormwater runoff.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) writes:

The assessment finds that climate change is likely to diminish continued progress on global food security through production disruptions leading to local availability limitations and price increases, interrupted transport conduits, and diminished food safety, among other causes. The risks are greatest for the global poor and in tropical regions. In the near term, some high-latitude production export regions may benefit from changes in climate.

A bleak future

As you can see a fairly bleak uniform view from many official agencies. Global efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions and regional measures to adapt to changing climatic conditions will be important to mitigate the impact on food and feed safety in relation to human health and nutrition, animal and plant health, and the environment.

The previous blog on arsenic was used as an example of a an increasing human health problem of a contaminant due to climate change. In some future blogs we will cover the the increased prevalence of algal and fungal toxins due to global warming.