Acrylonitrile (AN) is an important intermediary for the synthesis of a variety of organic products, such as artificial fibres, household articles and resins. Although acute effects are the primary concern for an exposure to AN, potential genotoxic, carcinogenic and teratogenic risks of AN have to be taken seriously in view of the large number of workers employed in such industries and the world-wide population using products containing and possibly liberating AN. An understanding of the effect of acrylonitrile must be based on a characterization of its metabolism as well as of the resulting products and their genotoxic properties. Tests for mutagenicity in bacteria have in general been positive, those in plants and on unscheduled DNA synthesis doubtful, and those on chromosome aberrations in vivo negative. Wherever positive results had been obtained, metabolic activation of AN appeared to be a prerequisite. The extent to which such mutagenic effects are significant in man depends, however, also on the conditions of exposure. It appears from the limited data that the ultimate mutagenic factor(s), such as 2-cyanoethylene oxide, may have little opportunity to act under conditions where people are exposed because it is formed only in small amounts and is rapidly degraded. The carcinogenic action of AN has been evaluated by various agencies and ranged from 'reasonably be anticipated to be a human carcinogen' to 'cannot be excluded', the most recent evaluation being 'possibly carcinogenic to humans'. Animal data that confirm the carcinogenic potential of AN have certain limitations with respect to the choice of species, type of tumors and length of follow up. Epidemiological studies which sometimes, but not always, yielded positive results, encounter the usual difficulties of confounding factors in chemical industries. Exposure of workers to AN should continue to be carefully monitored, but AN would not have to be considered a cancer risk to the population provided limitations on releases from consumer products and guidelines on AN in water and air are enforced. AN is teratogenic in laboratory animals (rat, hamster) at high doses when foetal/embryonic (and maternal) toxicity already is manifest. Pregnant workers should not be exposed to AN. In view of the small concentrations generally encountered outside plants, women not professionally exposed would appear not to be at risk of teratogenic effects due to AN. Future research should concentrate on the elucidation of the different degradation pathways in man and on epidemiological studies in workers including pregnant women, assessing also, if possible, individual exposure by bio-monitoring.
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