The majority of printing inks are based on mineral oils (MOs) which contain complex mixtures of saturated and aromatic hydrocarbons. Consumer exposure to these oils occurs either through direct skin contacts or, more frequently, as a result of MO migration into the contents of food packaging that was made from recycled newspaper. Despite this ubiquitous and frequent exposure little is known about the potential toxicological effects, particularly with regard to the aromatic MO fractions. From a toxicological point of view the huge amount of alkylated and unsubstituted compounds therein is reason for concern as they can harbor genotoxicants as well as potential endocrine disruptors. The aim of this study was to assess both the genotoxic and estrogenic potential of MOs used in printing inks. Mineral oils with various aromatic hydrocarbon contents were tested using a battery of in vitro assays selected to address various endpoints such as estrogen-dependent cell proliferation, activation of estrogen receptor α or transcriptional induction of estrogenic target genes. In addition, the comet assay has been applied to test for genotoxicity. Out of 15 MOs tested, 10 were found to potentially act as xenoestrogens. For most of the oils the effects were clearly triggered by constituents of the aromatic hydrocarbon fraction. From 5 oils tested in the comet assay, 2 showed slight genotoxicity. Altogether it appears that MOs used in printing inks are potential endocrine disruptors and should thus be assessed carefully to what extent they might contribute to the total estrogenic burden in humans.
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