It has been shown that humic acid (HA), a phenolic polymer, exhibits pro-oxidant and cytotoxic effects. In this study, HA induction of apoptosis was studied using cultured human premyelocytic leukemia HL-60 cells. Treatment at a range of HA concentrations (50-400 microg/ml) resulted in dose-and time-dependent sequences of events marked by apoptosis, as demonstrated through by apoptotic features such as loss of cell viability, chromatin condensation, and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation. This HA-induced apoptosis in the HL-60 cells was mainly associated with the release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria. Furthermore, apoptosis in the HL-60 cells was accompanied by the activation of caspase-3 and the specific proteolytic cleavage of poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), a major component in the apoptotic cell death mechanism. Although the HA-induced apoptosis was associated with Bax protein levels, negligible Bcl-2 reduction was observed. Analysis of the data reported herein reveals that HA exerts antiproliferative action and growth inhibition on HL-60 cells through induction of apoptosis, which may have anticancer properties potentially useful for the development of new drug products.