Toxicology of selenium: a review

Clin Toxicol. 1980 Sep;17(2):171-230. doi: 10.3109/15563658008985076.


The concentration of selenium in soil, water, or minerals is site specific. World or regional averages are of little practical value. In one report from the front range area of Colorado, average selenium concentrations in bodies of standing water were from 0.3 to 15.8 micrograms Se per liter of water. In some aquatic organisms there is a strong correlation between the Se content of the water ant that of the body tissues; in others no such correlation obtains. Some organisms bioaccumulate Se by factors as high as 1300 to 3800. In most fish the amount of Se in the flesh seems to depend on the amount in the food taken in; there are exceptions, however. Aquatic organisms from seleniferous regions bioconcentrate selenium so as to reach total body levels of 60 micrograms Se per gram or up to 100 micrograms Se per gram of liver. There seems to be no evidence for "biomagnification" of selenium by aquatic organisms. Selenium exerts a strong protective action against the poisoning effects of many heavy metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, for example) and of some organic toxicants (paraquat, for example) in birds, mammals, and man. Data on man are sketchy. Selenium is released into the environment from the burning of coal. No identifiable hazard to man or to plants and animals useful to man can, at this time, be attributed to this source. Selenium is poisonous to man and animal in large amounts. It is a necessary micronutrient for many animals in small amounts; it may also be a needed micronutrient for man, but the data are sparse. The usual American diet contains adequate selenium for human health. Occupational selenium poisoning is mostly accidental and rare.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Chemical Phenomena
  • Chemistry
  • Drug Interactions
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Fishes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mercury Poisoning / prevention & control
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced
  • Plants / drug effects
  • Rabbits
  • Selenium / analysis
  • Selenium / metabolism
  • Selenium / pharmacology
  • Selenium / physiology
  • Selenium / toxicity*
  • Sheep
  • Soil / analysis
  • Swine
  • Teratogens


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Soil
  • Teratogens
  • Selenium