Abstract

An epidemiological survey for the causes of a high incidence of primary liver cancer (PLC) in Haimen city, Jian-Su province and Fusui county, Guangxi province in China, found a close correlation between the incidence of PLC and the drinking of pond and ditch water. With an aim to clarify whether microcystins (MC), a hepatotoxic peptide produced by water bloom algae, contaminate the drinking water in the endemic areas of PLC in China, a highly sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay with a detection limit of 50 pg/ml, was introduced to monitor the MC. Three trials to survey the drinking water were carried out in 1993–1994. Samples, 1135 in total, were collected from different sources such as: ponds, ditches, rivers, shallow wells and deep wells in Haimen city. The first survey in September 1993 found that three out of 14 ditch water specimens were positive for MC, with a range of 90–460 pg/ml. Several toxic algae such as Oscillatoria agardhii were present in some of the ditches. In the second trial, samples were collected from fiveponds/ditches, two rivers, two shallow wells and two deep wells monthly for the whole year of 1994. These data showed that MC was highest in June to September, with a range of 62–296 pg/ml. A third trial on the 989 different water samples collected from the different types of water sources in July 1994 revealed that 17% of the pond/ditch water, 32% of the river water, and 4% of the shallow-well water were positive for MC, with averagesof 101, 160 and 68 pg/ml respectively. No MC was detected in deep well water. A similar survey on 26 drinking watersamples in Fusui, Guangxi province, demonstrated a high contamination frequency of MC in the water of ponds/ditchesand rivers but no MC in shallow and deep wells. These data support a hypothesis that the blue-green algal toxin MC in the drinking water of ponds/ditches and rivers, or both, is one of the risk factors for the high incidence of PLC in China. Based on previous findings on the epidemiology of PLC and the present results from the mass screening of MC in the drinking water, an advisory level of MC in drinking water was proposed to below 0.01 μg/I. The combined effectof a potent hepato-carcinogen AFB1 and an intermittent intake of MC in drinking water in the summer season was discussed as an etiology of PLC.