Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Aspergillus could bring together 2 Berlins

News from Berlin, New Jersey, USA is that the Berlin Borough municipal buildings are heavily contaminated with mold - specifically Aspergillus versicolor and Penicillium. Given the potential for allergies and mycotoxicity the building is to be abandoned.

Berlin, USA is divided into 2 - Berlin Borough and Berlin Township, and the two have held talks to construct a joint municipal building with complete union 'a possibility'.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Is industrial scale composting a hazard to public health?

Composting is increasingly being taken up by local councils in the UK in an effort to reduce the amount of material they have to dump in landfill sites. Given that composting generates large quantities of spores, most particularly of the pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus, the question is often asked how close is it safe to site houses, schools and places of work to these facilities.

The Health and Safety Executive in the UK has looked into this in some detail and came up with a detailed review entitled "Occupational and environmental exposure to bioaerosols from composts and potential health effects - A critical review of published data".

One of the most relevant extracts is reproduced here:

Most reported studies have found that people living more than 250 m from composting sites are exposed to microbial emissions that are similar to ‘background’, i.e., are not significantly higher than can occur naturally. However, there are some recordings of high levels. In one study, increased concentrations were detected 500m away from a composting site, with
concentrations of thermophilic actinomycetes reaching 106 cfu/m3 200m away (Neef et al 1999). The predominance of Aspergillus fumigatus in bioaerosol emissions from compost may pose an increased risk of infection to immunocompromised persons, and individual case studies have been reported of allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis and invasive aspergillosis associated with the handling of biological waste and composted wood chips respectively (Allmers et al, 2000; Conrad et al, 1992) while allergic diseases such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis have been diagnosed in individual cases associated with compost handling both occupationally (Vinken and Roels, 1984; Weber et al, 1993) and recreationally (Brown et al, 1995). Consequently, persons known to have impaired immunity may be at increased risk of infection if exposed to A fumigatus in compost bioaerosols.
However, to place this in context, a similar risk would occur with exposure to other organic dusts containing Aspergillus fumigatus, such as from other agricultural activities (grain harvesting and handling, also demolition of buildings).

In other words it isn't safe to have a person known to have an impaired immune system or perhaps known to be sensitive to particular aspergillus allergens (and others carried by the bioaerosol) closer than 250-500m from a composting facility BUT the risk is no more than common agricultural and building practices where the earth is disturbed by machinery, gardening, the wind, or is exposed to particular atmospheric conditions.

The key is information and education. These guidelines are useless if ignored, especially when taking on staff to work in one of these facilities or if a vulnerable person is not identified living in the 'at risk' area(s). This is the difficulty - there is a strong danger that the onus will fall onto the effected individuals rather than the companies running the composting facilities.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Lucy Laws goes home for easter

Following on from comments made in this blog over the last few months it was very good to see that the daughter of a mayor in New Zealand who was suffering from invasive aspergillosis has recovered enough to return home.

Leukemia and aspergillosis are not easy to beat and there is some way to go yet before the all clear can be given, but Lucy has already overcome huge odds to make it this far - long may her recovery continue.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Genetic manipulation of Maize reduces mycotoxin levels

Mycotoxins are a major threat to public health in many 'developing world' countries as storage of corn can be quite poor or inconsistent - in 2007 alone there were over 100 deaths due to eating contaminated food. In countries such as EU and USA where mycotoxin levels are closely monitored this isn't a problem.

"Environmental factors like drought, high temperatures, nitrogen availability and insect damage in plants allow the fungus to thrive. Fungal spores can enter the corn via cavities created by insects, and later germinate and produce mycotoxins, the problematic family of contaminants that includes aflatoxin."

Monsanto have developed genetically manipulated corn that is designed to ward off insect attack, and have found that the same strains of corn are also less likely to accumulate some mycotoxins, presumably because they have less insect damage. They plan to further develop this as a useful feature for their crops.

Aspergillus - good news for vegetarians?

Glucosamine is a food supplement that is becoming popular in the US for its claimed properties for promoting bone joint health. These claims are backed to some extent by a report of a clinical trial in the New England Journal of Medicine (paper here) though they remain controversial - glucosamine is clearly shown to be inactive for the treatment of osteoarthritis.

The point of this comment is not glucosamine itself, but the source of glucosamine. Originally largely made from shellfish it was not palatable to many vegetarians, but now there are two products that are made using Aspergillus niger and that is being marketed as a supplement for vegetarians. Yet another industrial use for aspergillus that benefits people rather than causes illness! Aspergillus is far from all bad.

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