Petroleum refinery workers are potentially exposed to a wide range of petrochemical industry pollutants (PIP), such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene, cancer-related compounds classified as carcinogenic to humans. The aim of this study was to evaluate the cytogenetic effects of exposure to PIP from two industrialised areas in South/East Sicily (Italy) using a micronucleus (MN) assay and other nuclear anomalies (ONA) on exfoliated buccal cells. Results highlighted not only a statistically significant high level of increase of MN in petroleum refinery (PR) workers, but also in the subjects not working in PR but living in the industrialised area. The ONA analysis showed a highly significant increase in karyolytic cells in exposed vs unexposed subjects, in contrast to a decrease in differentiated cells. These results suggest the presence of a cytotoxic effect in the oral mucosa cells, probably related to the pollutant compounds present in the environment close to the petrochemical industries. Our data confirm that the analysis of exfoliated buccal cells is a useful and simple non-invasive method to evaluate the genotoxic/cytotoxic effects of pollutants in a specific area. To avoid confounding factors due to the different lifestyles of the human subjects, the above assays could be better applied on farm animals, which have a relatively consistent lifestyle and, in some cases, a very low genetic heterogeneity.
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