LOWDEN, Iowa — But for the satellite dish in the yard, the Harlan Pruess farm looks almost American Gothic perfect.
A red-white-and-blue flag waves proudly above a trim green lawn. The family dog sits faithfully outside a neatly whitewashed farmhouse. A stubble of stalks from last year's harvest peeks through rich black soil on rolling fields still moist from overnight rain.
Even the dingy yellow corn mound out by the shed, nearly 13,000 bushels worth, seems deceptively bucolic. But this corn, in a heap more than 10 feet high and 70 feet long, might be better suited to Love Canal than a picture-book pastoral setting in eastern Iowa.
Tainted by a potent mold-induced carcinogen called aflatoxin, the Pruess corn could be the most poisonous grain ever tested. Contamination levels have been measured at more than 100 times greater than that considered safe for cattle feed and 1,600 times more than is allowable for human consumption.
The corn is so toxic that Iowa officials have declared it a hazardous waste, lumped in a category normally reserved for industrial pollutants and dangerous chemicals. State officials have ordered Pruess to dispose of the corn by Friday, though no one's quite sure how that can be safely done.
"This is the highest concentration of aflatoxin that's ever been recorded in the country and perhaps in the world," said Dale Cochran, Iowa's agriculture secretary.
By one estimate, cleanup costs could hit $1.5 million. And whoever does the work will have to wear special breathing equipment and protective clothing.
If ingested, absorbed through skin pores or inhaled, aflatoxin can cause liver cancer.
As astounded as they are by the virulence of the corn, residents of the nation's No. 1 corn growing state are even more dumbfounded over the bureaucratic bungling, indifference and possible deceit that allowed it to get here in the first place.
The corn was grown last year in Oklahoma, seized by the Farmer's Home Administration in a bankruptcy proceeding and sold to Pruess last month even though both federal and state officials in Oklahoma, as well as Pruess, were aware that it was extremely dangerous. Moving contaminated grain across state lines also violated federal rules.
The controversy has triggered a wave of finger-pointing among federal regulators who are trying to assess blame. It also has called into question the practice of allowing farmers like Pruess to "salvage" tainted grain for feed by mixing it with enough pure grain to dilute poison concentrations below federally prescribed safety levels.
Because it was intercepted before it could be used in animal feed, the corn poses no threat to the food chain. And, even though the mound remains uncovered, authorities insist it is of little danger to the surrounding community. The Pruess homestead is about 4 miles southwest of town on a lightly traveled gravel road. The nearest neighbor is half a mile away. More importantly, several weeks of exposure to the sun and rain have formed a thick crust on the top of the pile that should prevent the wind from blowing contaminated dust into the air.
"It is a serious problem, but it is not one that puts people in immediate danger or should cause panic," explained Alan Stokes, director of the environmental protection division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Still, Cochran insisted that quick action to neutralize the corn was vital. "What if a tornado came along and picked up that pile and spread it around?" he asked. "We're in tornado season so we have to get that moved."
Aflatoxin is produced by a common topsoil fungus known as \o7 Aspergillus flavus\f7 . It is known to affect peanuts and cotton as well as corn. Normally it poses little threat. But when the weather becomes exceptionally hot and dry, as in the height of a drought, kernels can crack and allow the mold to thrive and reach dangerous levels.
But the mold can also spread rapidly if the corn is mishandled, which may have been the case with the batch Pruess eventually purchased. The Des Moines Register reported in its Saturday editions that the corn was grown by George Gentry, an economically stressed Pryor, Okla., farmer who acknowledged to the paper that he had harvested the corn early and with a much higher moisture content than experts say is safe for storage.
The paper said Gentry, who once ran for a U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma as a supporter of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., admitted that he rushed the harvest before it had matured in an unsuccessful attempt to keep it from falling into the hands of the federal Farmers Home Administration and other creditors.