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Fungicides were developed to control the fungi and mold that may grow on crops, stored foods and seeds, and in our bodies. Control of plant fungus in agriculture is important not only because fungi can damage crops, but also because some fungi produce toxic chemicals (mycotoxins). One fungus, Aspergillus flavus, often contaminates nuts (e.g. peanuts) and grains (e.g. corn). This fungus produces aflatoxin, a compound that can cause liver disease and in some situations, liver cancer. Another naturally occurring grain fungus produces an ergot alkaloid that can cause hallucinations.

Early fungicides were sulfur, copper sulfate, and mercury-based compounds. In the 1940s and 50s, hexachlorobenzene, a synethic fungicide, was widely used to protect seed grain from fungal rot. Mercurial compounds were also applied to seed grains to protect them from soil fungus. Both of these chemicals caused severe illness when people ate treated grains intended for planting as crops. These two fungicides are now rarely used and have been replaced by less-toxic ones, but careful harvest and storage procedures for seeds are necessary to prevent potential contamination of food supplies. The overall need for fungicides in seed and crop storage can be reduced by controlling environmental conditions that encourage the growth of fungi, and Integrated Pest Management reduces the need to use dangerous fungicides on growing plants.


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