Aflatoxin is not a probably human carcinogen: the published evidence is sufficient

Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1989 Dec;10(3):272-83. doi: 10.1016/0273-2300(89)90054-8.


Since the early 1960s, when aflatoxin, the mold-produced contaminant of a number of important food commodities, was found to be a potent hepatocarcinogen for laboratory rats, there has been a sustained search for evidence to support the regulatory presumption that aflatoxin is a probable human carcinogen. The developing laboratory evidence of differences between species in metabolism of aflatoxin and susceptibility to its oncogenic effects indicated that humans were probably refractory to aflatoxin carcinogenesis, but the early epidemiological evidence indicated otherwise. That epidemiological evidence, however, contained flaws so that Working Groups of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) meeting in 1970, 1976, and 1982, although ignoring the biochemical evidence, did consider the available epidemiological evidence insufficient for a conclusion of human carcinogenicity. During the 1970s and 1980s, studies on the connection between chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) and primary liver cell cancer (PLC), the expected lesion from aflatoxin exposure, had established a very strong etiological relationship between HBV and PLC. Since all the epidemiological studies of aflatoxin and PLC conducted prior to 1982 had been of populations with endemic HBV infection, and, in addition to other flaws, had not been controlled for this confounding factor, there was a solid basis for their rejection. Most epidemiological studies in the 1980s of aflatoxin and PLC were either in the United States, where HBV-infected groups could be excluded from the study, or, when in areas of chronic HBV infection, attempts were made to include that factor. The study of U.S. populations showed no difference in mortality rates from PLC that could be attributed to aflatoxin exposure. The studies of populations with endemic HBV infection produced no convincing evidence to support a primary role for aflatoxin in the induction of human PLC, although an accessory role to HBV infection for aflatoxin could not be ruled out. However, the epidemiological studies of the HBV/PLC relation indicate that an accessory factor is not an essential condition, a conclusion supported by animal models and a laboratory study that specifically found no interaction between aflatoxin and a hepatitis virus in the duck, a species in which liver cancer can be induced by either agent. It was surprising that an IARC Working Group meeting in 1987 concluded, on the basis of much of this evidence that was available at that time, and citing other studies that appear to be irrelevant to the issue, that there was sufficient evidence to consider aflatoxin a probable human carcinogen.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aflatoxins / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Carcinogenicity Tests
  • Hepatitis B / complications
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Rats
  • Time Factors


  • Aflatoxins