Lead and cancer in humans: where are we now?

Am J Ind Med. 2000 Sep;38(3):295-9. doi: 10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<295::aid-ajim8>3.0.co;2-l.


Background: Lead is only weakly mutagenic, but in vitro it inhibits DNA repair and acts synergistically with other mutagens. Lead acetate administered orally, cutaneously, or intraperitoneally causes kidney cancer, brain cancer (gliomas), and lung cancer in rodents, and acts synergistically with other carcinogens. Most cytogenetic studies of exposed workers have shown increases in chromosome aberrations or sister chromatid exchange, including some studies with positive-exposure response trends. There are eight studies of cancer mortality or incidence among highly exposed workers; most are cohort studies of lead smelter or battery workers exposed decades ago.

Methods: We reviewed the epidemologic studies with regard to cancer.

Results: These studies provide some evidence of increased risk of lung cancer (RR = 1.30, 1.15-1.46, 675 observed deaths) and stomach cancer (combined RR = 1.34, 1.14-1.57, 181 observed). However, the lung cancer findings are not consistent across studies, and confounding by arsenic may affect the study with the highest lung cancer RR. Exclusion of that study yields a combined lung cancer RR of 1.14 (1.04-1.73). There is little evidence of increased risk of kidney cancer (combined RR = 1.01, 0. 72-1.42, 40 observed) or brain cancer (combined RR = 1.06, 0.81-1.40, 69 observed). However, two studies show a two-fold increase in kidney cancer, and one study shows a significant excess of gliomas. IARC classified lead as a "possible human carcinogen" based on sufficient animal data and insufficient human data in 1987. Six of the eight studies cited above have been published since 1987.

Conclusions: Overall, there is only weak evidence associating lead with cancer; the most likely candidates are lung cancer, stomach cancer, and gliomas.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Lead / adverse effects*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Risk


  • Carcinogens
  • Lead