Although numerous epidemiological studies have shown that inorganic arsenicals are human skin carcinogens, there is currently no accepted mechanism for its action or an established animal model for its study. We observed increased mRNA transcripts and secretion of keratinocyte growth factors, including granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha) and the proinflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) in primary human epidermal keratinocytes cultured in the presence of low micromolar concentrations of sodium arsenite. Total cell numbers, as well as c-myc expression and incorporation of [3H]thymidine, both indicators of cell proliferation, were also elevated in keratinocyte cultures treated with sodium arsenite. As an in vivo model, the influence of arsenic on mouse skin tumor development was studied in transgenic TG.AC mice which carry the v-Ha-ras oncogene, and can serve as a genetically initiated model for skin carcinogenesis. Following low-dose application of 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA), a marked increase in the number of skin papillomas occurred in transgenic mice receiving arsenic in the drinking water as compared to control drinking water. Papillomas did not develop in arsenic-treated transgenic mice that had not received TPA or arsenic-treated wild-type FVB/N mice, suggesting that arsenic is neither a tumor initiator or promoter but rather an enhancer. Injection of anti-GM-CSF antibodies following application of TPA in transgenic mice reduced the number of papillomas. Consistent with that observed in human keratinocyte cultures, increases in GM-CSF and TGF-alpha mRNA transcripts were found within the epidermis of arsenic-treated mice when compared to controls within 6 weeks of treatment. These results suggest that arsenic enhances papilloma development via the chronic stimulation of keratinocyte-derived growth factors and represents the first example of a chemical carcinogen that acts in this manner. These studies suggest that in vitro studies with human keratinocyte cultures examined in conjunction with TG.AC transgenic mice can provide a useful model for examining the tumor enhancing properties of environmental chemicals.