They are the leading plant toxins associated with disease in humans and animals. Upon ingestion, metabolic activation in liver converts the parent compounds into highly reactive electrophiles capable of reacting with cellular macromolecules forming adducts which may initiate acute or chronic toxicity.
The pyrrolizidine alkaloids present a serious health risk to human populations that may be exposed to them through contamination of foodstuffs or when plants containing them are consumed as medicinal herbs.
Some pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) adducts are persistent in animal tissue and the metabolites may be re-released and cause damage long after the initial period of ingestion. PAs are also known to act as teratogens and abortifacients.
Chronic ingestion of plants containing PAs has also led to cancer in experimental animals and metabolites of several PAs have been shown to be mutagenic in the Salmonella typhimurium/mammalian microsome system. However, no clinical association has yet been found between human cancer and exposure to PAs. Based on the extensive reports on the outcome of human exposure available in the literature, we conclude that while humans face the risk of veno-occlusive disease and childhood cirrhosis PAs are not carcinogenic to humans.