The Effects of Climate Change on Foodborne Illness

*Note: Stop Foodborne Illness is involved exclusively in food safety advocacy, education, and victim assistance. Stop is not an environmental advocacy organization. Our concern with climate change extends solely to its projected effect on foodborne illnesses. The effects with which we are primarily concerned are listed below.

Bacterial Adaptation

Over time, many bacterial agents have developed mechanisms that allow them to survive and even grow under certain unfavorable conditions. In many cases, when exposed to a sub-lethal stressor, bacteria will become conditioned to survive an even harsher condition produced by that stressor. Climate change is concerning in this case because as climate-induced changes create unfavorable environments for bacteria, the bacteria may become increasingly resistant to stress responses.

Flooding

As climate change increases the incidence of inland floods and flash floods, it is likely that soil from contaminated lands upstream (industrial sites, landfills, sewage treatment plants, etc.) will be washed into river water bodies and flooding soils. As contaminated river sediments are deposited on flooded areas, there will be a huge rise in the contamination of agricultural and pastoral soil.

Food Safety in Emergencies

Climate change is leading to increasing and more frequent extreme weather disasters. This calls for immediate attention to reform and development of measures for prevention of foodborne illness, inspection and salvation of food, provision for safe food and water, recognition and response to outbreaks of foodborne illness, and food safety education and information of affected populations.

Mold and Mycotoxin Growth

Mycotoxins are a group of highly toxic chemical substances that are produced by toxigenic molds that commonly grow on a number of crops. They are transferred to humans via direct consumption of infected crops or through livestock that have consumed contaminated feed. At high doses, mycotoxins produce acute symptoms and deaths, and particular mycotoxins may possess carcinogenic, immunosuppressive, neurotoxic, estrogenic, and teratogenic activity. Because mycotoxins are produced by molds, climate change causing high temperature, humidity or precipitation could increase mycotoxin growth by creating an optimal environmental condition for mold growth.

Soil Contamination

Climate change will increase alternating periods of floods and droughts, which are largely associated with agriculture soil contamination and higher levels of contaminants. In addition, the impact of climate change in physical systems and processes will be exacerbated in areas that have been damaged by humans for agricultural purposes. As climate change leads to more soil contamination, more food contamination will occur.

Veterinary Drug Use

Because climate change is increasing the incidence of zoonotic diseases, animal pests and new diseases in aquaculture, there may be higher and even unacceptable levels of pesticide and veterinary drugs used to combat these issues in animals. As a result, unacceptable levels of pesticides and veterinary drugs may become present in animal products.

Water Contamination

Climate change will cause higher water temperatures, increased precipitation intensity, and long periods of low flows. These changes will exacerbate many forms of water pollution including sediments, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, pathogens, pesticides, and salts. In addition, increased heavy rainfall will wash pollutants (pesticides, fertilizers, organic matter, heavy materials, etc.) from soil to water bodies. Increased water contamination will then dramatically increase the amount of contaminated food distributed throughout the nation.

Zoonosis

Zoonotic diseases are diseases transmitted from animals to people through direct contact with infected animals, products, or wastes. Climate change will:
• Increase the susceptibility of animals to disease, consequently increasing the likelihood of contracting human illnesses from animals.
• Alter the range, seasonality, and incidence of zoonotic diseases, most likely bringing about a longer and more dangerous disease season.
• Influence the length of the vectors transmission cycle and thus the incidence of human infection.

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