Last summer's drought created hospitable conditions in the Midwest for the heat-loving fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces aflatoxin, a substance that is 100 times more likely to induce cancer than the industrial pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB.

Laboratory rats develop liver cancer after 68 weeks on a daily dose of a few millionths of a gram—the same diet of aflatoxin ingested by people in regions of Asia and Africa that have the world's highest incidence of liver cancer.

Because it occurs in nature, aflatoxin can't be controlled by merely closing a factory somewhere. . . . Tens of millions of bushels of corn harvested last fall were tainted, and the infection can spread while corn is stored in elevators. Certain grain terminals and food companies are finding aflatoxin in 20% of the corn they are buying from Midwest farmers.

The scope of the peril is broader still. Contaminated corn is being fed to dairy cattle, which pass aflatoxin on in their milk. In Texas, about two million pounds of tainted milk has had to be dumped. And the poison is finding its way into breakfast cereals, cornmeal, tortilla chips and other processed foods.

While no deaths or cases of cancer have been traced to aflatoxin unleashed by last year's drought—cancer can take years to develop—aflatoxin is a threat to the food supply and the public health.

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