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Crit Rev Toxicol. 2005 Apr-May;35(4):307-23.

Vinyl chloride-a classical industrial toxicant of new interest.

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  • 1Institut für Arbeitsphysiologie an der Universität Dortmund (IfADo), Leibniz Research Center for Working Environment and Human Factors, Dortmund, Germany.


The carcinogenicity of vinyl chloride in humans was recognized in 1974 based on observations of hepatic angiosarcomas in highly exposed workers. A multiplicity of endpoints has been demonstrated. The primary target organ, the liver, displays differential susceptibilities of hepatocytes and sinusoidal cells, which are modified by factors of age and dose. There is consistency in organotropism between experimental animals and humans. Vinyl chloride is a pluripotent carcinogen, predominantly directed toward hepatic endothelial (sinusoidal) cells, and second toward the parenchymal cells of the liver. The similarity of results between experimental animals and humans is a solid basis of an amalgamation of experimental and epidemiological risk estimates. Vinyl chloride requires metabolic activation for carcinogenicity and mutagenicity, and toxicokinetics are a key to interpret the dose response. Practically the entire initial metabolism of vinyl chloride is oxidative. At higher exposure concentrations this is nonlinear, and metabolic saturation of metabolism in rats is reached at about 250 ppm. This is consistent with the plateau of hepatic angiosarcoma incidence in rat bioassays. Physiologically based pharmacokinetic/toxicokinetic (PBPK) models have been developed and successfully applied within the frame of human cancer risk assessments. The major DNA adduct induced by vinyl chloride (approximately 98% of total adducts in rats), 7-(2-oxoethyl)guanine, is almost devoid of promutagenic activity. The clearly promutagenic "etheno" adducts N2,3-ethenoguanine and 3,N4-ethenocytosine each represent approximately 1% of the vinyl chloride DNA adducts in rats, and 1,N6-ethenoadenine is found at even lower concentrations. Etheno adducts appear to have a long persistence and are repaired by glycosylases. Vinyl chloride represents a human carcinogen for which a series of mechanistic events connects exposure with the carcinogenic outcome. These include (1) metabolic activation (to form chloroethylene oxide), (2) DNA binding of the reactive metabolite (to exocyclic etheno adducts), (3) promutagenicity of these adducts, and (4) effects of such mutations on protooncogenes/tumor suppressor genes at the gene and gene product levels. In rat hepatocytes, a further event is a biomarker response. Cancer prestages (enzyme-altered foci), as quantitative biomarkers, provide a tool to study dose response even within low dose ranges where a carcinogenic risk cannot be seen in cancer bioassays directly. Such biomarker responses support a linear nonthreshold extrapolation for low-dose assessment of carcinogenic risks due to vinyl chloride. Published risk estimates based on different sets of data (animal experiments, epidemiological studies) appear basically consistent, and on this basis an angiosarcoma risk of approximately 3 x 10(-4) has been deduced by extrapolation, for exposure to 1 ppm vinyl chloride over an entire human working lifetime. An important point that should be considered in regulatory standard settings is the presence of a physiological background of those etheno DNA adducts, which are also produced by vinyl chloride. Likely reasons for this background are oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation. In essence, fundamentals of the hepatocarcinogenicity of vinyl chloride appear now well established, providing a solid scientific basis for regulatory activities.

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