Since the first report of the induction of liver cancer in rats fed dimethylnitrosamine (71), more than 80 different nitroso compounds have been identified as cancer-causing agents. The formation of nitrosamines results from the reaction of secondary amines with nitrite at acid pH. Nitrite is commonly added to cured meat and fish, and nitroso compounds have been measured in these foods (72).
Bacteria have been implicated in the formation of N-nitroso compounds. Nitrite can be produced by the bacterial reduction of nitrate. High levels of nitrate are often present in leafy vegetables. The oral microbial flora of humans can reduce nitrate with the formation of nitrite. This reaction can raise nitrite levels in saliva to 6-10 ppm (73).
It has been shown that when dimethylamine and sodium nitrite are incubated at pH 7.0 under anaerobic conditions with rat intestinal microflora, the formation of dimethylnitrosamine was detected (74). These findings indicate that nitrosamines could be generated in the intestine, where the pH is nearly neutral, and the reaction would occur extremely slowly without bacterial enzyme catalysis.
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