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Aflatoxins Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS)

Updated December 1, 2023
Disclaimer: Risk group, biosafety level, and all other precautions noted here are subject to change after a risk assessment by EHS.


Agent Type Risk Group Biosafety Level Animal Housing Biosafety Level
Biologically Derived-Toxin

Agent Characteristics 

Risk Group: RG-2 associated with human disease, rarely serious; preventive or therapeutic interventions often available.

Agent Type: Biologically Derived-Toxin Carcinogen

Description: Aflatoxins are a family of poisonous and cancer-causing chemicals produced by certain fungi found on agricultural crops such as cassava, chili peppers, corn, cottonseed, millet, peanuts, rice, sorghum, sunflower seeds, tree nuts, wheat, and a variety of spices intended for human consumption. Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus are the main fungi that produce aflatoxins. The presence of these molds does not always indicate that harmful levels of aflatoxin are present, but does indicate a significant risk. The term "aflatoxin" is derived from Aspergillus flavus, the fungus in which the toxin was first identified. Laboratory work with most toxins, in amounts routinely employed in the biomedical sciences, can be performed safely with minimal risk to the worker and negligible risk to the surrounding community. Toxins do not replicate, are not infectious, and are difficult to transmit mechanically or manually from person to person. Many commonly employed toxins have very low volatility. At least 14 different aflatoxins are produced in nature. Aflatoxin B1 (AFB1) is considered the most toxic and is produced by both A. flavus and A. parasiticus. Aflatoxin M1 is present in the fermentation broth of A. parasiticus, but it and aflatoxin M2 are also produced when aflatoxin B1 and B2 are metabolized in the liver. Known aflatoxin types are: Aflatoxin B1 and B2, produced by A. flavus and A. parasiticus; Aflatoxin G1 and G2, produced by A. parasiticus; Aflatoxin M1, metabolite of aflatoxin B1 in humans and animals (exposure in ng levels may come from a mother's milk); Aflatoxin M2, metabolite of aflatoxin B2 in milk of cattle fed on contaminated foods; Aflatoxicol; Aflatoxin Q1 (AFQ1), major metabolite of AFB1 in in vitro liver preparations of other higher vertebrates 

Host Range: Humans and wide range of animals             Host Shedding: Blood, Feces, Urine

Route of Exposure to Humans: Direct Contact, Mucous Membranes, Ingestion, Percutaneous

Lethal Dose: Between 0.03 (chick embryo) and 18 (female rat) mg/kg body weight, depending on species. 

Health Hazards

Signs and symptoms of infection may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever, headache, dehydration, weight loss, lethargy)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms (i.e. loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Reproductive Health concerns (i.e. abortion, fetal abnormalities) 

Immunizations: None available                                  Prophylaxis*Biomonitoring Program

*Formal medical advice is obtained during medical consultations with Cornell Health or primary healthcare provider as needed.

Agent Stability 

Survival Outside Host Inactivation

Aflatoxins are relatively stable to heat, and are not destroyed by boiling water, pasteurization, or autoclaving.

Treat with fresh sodium hypochlorite at 1–2.5% (w/v) for 30 minutes (commercially available bleach solutions typically contain 3–6%); treat with a combination of 0.25% sodium hypochlorite and 0.25N sodium hydroxide for 30 minutes

Bleach solutions must be made with 24 hours of use.

Most commercially produced bleach has significantly decreased activity after 1 year and should be discarded.

For more guidance on disinfection see:  disinfectant selection.

Laboratory Hazards 

  • High energy-creating activities (centrifugation, sonication, high pressure systems, vortexing, tube cap popping)
  • Handling of sharps (needles, scalpels, microtome blades, broken glass, etc.)
  • Splash/droplet-creating activities (shaking incubators, liquid culturing, mechanical pipetting)
  • Equipment contamination
  • Exposed skin/uncovered wounds

Laboratory Acquired Infection (LAI) History: Not applicable

Laboratory Handling Guidelines 

Laboratory Biosafety Level (BSL): BSL-2


Lab Engineering Controls Personal Protective Equipment
  • Eye Protection
  • Single gloves
  • Snap-front lab coat with cinch cuffs
  • Disposable outer sleeves
  • Other: Respiratory Protection

Waste Management: Regulated Medical Waste (RMW)

Shipping Guidance: Refer to EHS Biological Materials Shipping 

Animal Vivarium Guidance

Animal Housing Biosafety Level (ABSL): ABSL-2

Animal Biosecurity: Experimental animals are housed separately       

Perform InoculationsBenchtop, Cage Changing Station, Biosafety Cabinet

Change CagesBenchtop, In a Biosafety Cabinet, Cage Changing Station

Exposure and Spill Procedures

Mucous Membranes: Flush eyes, mouth, or nose for 15 minutes at an eyewash station. See: responding to exposures.

Other Exposures: Wash with soap and water for 15 minutes (open wounds, sores, etc.) or a minimum of 20 seconds for areas with intact skin. See: responding to exposures.

Large Spills: Request assistance from the EHS Spill Team by calling CUPD dispatch. Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone.

Incident Reporting: Immediately report the incident to supervisor and complete the EHS online injury/illness report as soon as possible.

Medical Follow-Up:

  • For students, seek medical attention at Cornell Health or local primary care provider. Call Cornell Health at 607-255-5155 (24-hour phone consultation line) or a local urgent care. 
  • For faculty and staff, seek medical evaluation with a local primary care provider or urgent care. Cornell Health does not see employees for post-exposure care. 
  • Emergencies: Call 911 from a campus phone or 607-255-1111 from a mobile phone. 
Cornell EHS would like to thank Emory University for the use of their Biological Agent Reference Sheet (BARS) format and some content.