Review of the Evidence from Epidemiology, Toxicology, and Lung Bioavailability on the Carcinogenicity of Inhaled Iron Oxide Particulates

Chem Res Toxicol. 2016 Mar 21;29(3):237-54. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.5b00448. Epub 2016 Feb 24.


Since the iron-age and throughout the industrial age, humans have been exposed to iron oxides. Here, we review the evidence from epidemiology, toxicology, and lung bioavailability as to whether iron oxides are likely to act as human lung carcinogens. Current evidence suggests that observed lung tumors in rats result from a generic particle overload effect and local inflammation that is rat-specific under the dosing conditions of intratracheal instillation. This mode of action therefore, is not relevant to human exposure. However, there are emerging differences seen in vitro, in cell uptake and cell bioavailability between "bulk" iron oxides and "nano" iron oxides. "Bulk" particulates, as defined here, are those where greater than 70% are >100 nm in diameter. Similarly, "nano" iron oxides are defined in this context as particulates where the majority, usually >95% for pure engineered forms of primary particulates (not agglomerates), fall in the range 1-100 nm in diameter. From the weight of scientific evidence, "bulk" iron oxides are not genotoxic/mutagenic. Recent evidence for "nano" iron oxide is conflicting regarding genotoxic potential, albeit genotoxicity was not observed in an in vivo acute oral dose study, and "nano" iron oxides are considered safe and are being investigated for biomedical uses; there is no specific in vivo genotoxicity study on "nano" iron oxides via inhalation. Some evidence is available that suggests, hypothetically due to the larger surface area of "nano" iron oxide particulates, that toxicity could be exerted via the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the cell. However, the potential for ROS generation as a basis for explaining rodent tumorigenicity is only apparent if free iron from intracellular "nano" scale iron oxide becomes bioavailable at significant levels inside the cell. This would not be expected from "bulk" iron oxide particulates. Furthermore, human epidemiological evidence from a number of studies suggests that iron oxide is not a human carcinogen, and therefore, based upon the complete weight of evidence, we conclude that "bulk" iron oxides are not human carcinogens.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Administration, Oral
  • Animals
  • Biological Availability
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / administration & dosage*
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / metabolism
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / toxicity*
  • Ferric Compounds / administration & dosage*
  • Ferric Compounds / adverse effects
  • Ferric Compounds / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure*
  • Lung / drug effects
  • Lung / metabolism*
  • Particle Size
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Carcinogens, Environmental
  • Ferric Compounds
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • ferric oxide