Series: current issues in mutagenesis and carcinogenesis, No. 65. The genotoxicity and carcinogenicity of paracetamol: a regulatory (re)view

Mutat Res. 1996 Feb 1;349(2):263-88. doi: 10.1016/0027-5107(95)00185-9.


The publication of several studies reporting genotoxic effects of paracetamol, one of the world's most popular over-the-counter drugs, has raised the question of regulatory action. Paracetamol does not cause gene mutations, either in bacteria or in mammalian cells. There are, however, published data giving clear evidence that paracetamol causes chromosomal damage in vitro in mammalian cells at high concentrations and indicating that similar effects occur in vivo at high dosages. Available data point to three possible mechanisms of paracetamol-induced genotoxicity: (1) inhibition of ribonucleotide reductase; (2) increase in cytosolic and intranuclear Ca2+ levels; (3) DNA damage caused by NAPQI after glutathione depletion. All mechanisms involve dose thresholds. Studies of the relationship between genotoxicity and toxic effects in the rat (induction of micronuclei in rat bone marrow including dose-response relationship, biotransformation of paracetamol at different dosages, concomitant toxicity and biochemical markers) have recently been completed. These studies, which employed doses ranging from the dose resulting in human therapeutic peak plasma levels to highly toxic doses, give convincing evidence that genotoxic effects of paracetamol appear only at dosages inducing pronounced liver and bone marrow toxicity and that the threshold level for genotoxicity is not reached at therapeutic dosage. Reliable studies on the ability of paracetamol to affect germ cell DNA are not available. However, based on the amount of drug likely to reach germ cells and the evidence of thresholds, paracetamol is not expected to cause heritable damage in man. Various old and poorly designed long-term studies of paracetamol in the mouse and rat have given equivocal results. A few of these studies showed increased incidence of liver and bladder tumours at hepatotoxic doses. National Toxicology Program (U.S.A.) feeding studies have shown that paracetamol is non-carcinogenic when given at non-hepatotoxic doses up to 300 mg/kg/d to the rat and up to 1000 mg/kg/d to the mouse. Taking into account the knowledge of the hepatotoxicity and metabolism of paracetamol and the existence of thresholds for its genotoxicity, the animal studies do not indicate a carcinogenic potential at non-hepatotoxic dose levels. Based on this updated assessment of the genotoxicity and carcinogenicity of paracetamol, it is concluded that there is no need for regulatory action.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / toxicity*
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / toxicity*
  • Animals
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Biotransformation
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Cell Line
  • Chromosome Aberrations
  • DNA / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / pathology
  • Liver Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Mice
  • Mutagenicity Tests
  • Mutagens / toxicity*
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / chemically induced
  • Nonprescription Drugs / toxicity*
  • Rats
  • Urinary Bladder Neoplasms / chemically induced


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Carcinogens
  • Mutagens
  • Nonprescription Drugs
  • Acetaminophen
  • DNA