Publications from the Carcinogenic Potency Project

Ames, B.N., and Gold, L.S. Natural chemicals, synthetic chemicals, risk assessment, and cancer. Xenobiotics and Cancer (L. Ernster et al., eds.), Japan Sci. Soc. Press, Tokyo, Japan, pp. 303-314 (1991).

The administration of chemicals at the maximum tolerated dose (MTD) in standard animal cancer tests is postulated to increase cell division (mitogenesis), which in turn increases rates of mutagenesis and thus carcinogenesis. The animal data are consistent with this mechanism, because a high proportion-- about half-- of all chemicals tested (whether natural or synthetic) are indeed rodent carcinogens. We conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures, where cell killing does not occur, the hazards to humans of rodent carcinogens may be much lower than is commonly assumed.

The toxicological significance of exposures to synthetic chemicals is examined in the context of exposures to naturally occurring chemicals. We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods. We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.

The toxicology of synthetic chemicals is compared to that of natural chemicals, which represent the vast bulk of the chemicals to which humans are exposed. It is argued that animals have a broad array of inducible general defenses to combat the changing array of toxic chemicals in plant food (nature's pesticides) and that these defenses are effective against both natural and synthetic toxins. Synthetic toxins such as dioxin are compared to natural chemicals, such as indole carbinol (in broccoli) and ethanol. The finding that in high-dose tests, a high proportion of both natural and synthetic chemicals are carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, and clastogens (30-50% for each group) undermines current regulatory effects based on these tests to protect public health from low doses of synthetic chemicals.

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Last updated: November 10, 1995

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