Cancer incidence following long-term consumption of drinking water with high inorganic selenium content

Marco Vinceti, Massimo Vicentini, Lauren A Wise, Claudio Sacchettini, Carlotta Malagoli, Paola Ballotari, Tommaso Filippini, Marcella Malavolti, Paolo Giorgi Rossi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Selenium, a trace element to which humans are exposed mainly through diet, has been involved in the etiology of human cancer. We investigated the long-term effects of selenium exposure on cancer incidence using data from a natural experiment in Northern Italy. During the 1970s-1980s, in a part of the Italian municipality of Reggio Emilia, residents were inadvertently exposed to unusually high levels of inorganic hexavalent selenium (selenate) through drinking water. We followed the exposed residents for 28years, generating data on incidence (when available) and mortality rates for selected cancer sites; the remaining municipal residents comprised the unexposed (reference) group. We observed no substantial difference in overall cancer incidence comparing exposed and unexposed cohorts. We detected, however, a higher incidence of cancer at some sites, and for a few of them, namely cancers of the buccal cavity and pharynx, melanoma, urinary tract and lymphoid tissue, the excess incidence was particularly evident in the first period of follow-up but decreased over time. Overall, these results suggest that consumption of water with levels of selenium in its inorganic hexavalent form close to the European standard, 10μg/L, may have unfavourable effects on cancer incidence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)390-396
Number of pages7
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1 2018


  • Dietary Exposure/statistics & numerical data
  • Drinking Water/chemistry
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Italy/epidemiology
  • Male
  • Neoplasms/epidemiology
  • Selenium/analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical/analysis
  • Water Supply/statistics & numerical data


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