Arsenic toxicity and potential mechanisms of action

Toxicol Lett. 2002 Jul 7;133(1):1-16. doi: 10.1016/s0378-4274(02)00084-x.


Exposure to the metalloid arsenic is a daily occurrence because of its environmental pervasiveness. Arsenic, which is found in several different chemical forms and oxidation states, causes acute and chronic adverse health effects, including cancer. The metabolism of arsenic has an important role in its toxicity. The metabolism involves reduction to a trivalent state and oxidative methylation to a pentavalent state. The trivalent arsenicals, including those methylated, have more potent toxic properties than the pentavalent arsenicals. The exact mechanism of the action of arsenic is not known, but several hypotheses have been proposed. At a biochemical level, inorganic arsenic in the pentavalent state may replace phosphate in several reactions. In the trivalent state, inorganic and organic (methylated) arsenic may react with critical thiols in proteins and inhibit their activity. Regarding cancer, potential mechanisms include genotoxicity, altered DNA methylation, oxidative stress, altered cell proliferation, co-carcinogenesis, and tumor promotion. A better understanding of the mechanism(s) of action of arsenic will make a more confident determination of the risks associated with exposure to this chemical.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arsenic* / metabolism
  • Arsenic* / toxicity
  • Arsenicals / metabolism
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Lethal Dose 50
  • Mutagens / toxicity*


  • Arsenicals
  • Carcinogens
  • Mutagens
  • Arsenic