The environmental exposure to heavy metals is a well-known risk factor for cancer. We investigated levels of seven different heavy metals, (Co, Cd, Pb, Zn, Mn, Ni and Cu) in soil, fruit and vegetable samples of Van region in Eastern Turkey where upper gastrointestinal (GI) cancers are endemic. Heavy metal contents of the samples were determined by flame atomic absorption spectrometer. Four heavy metals (Cd, Pb, Cu and Co) were present in 2- to 50-fold higher concentrations whereas zinc levels were present in 40-fold lower concentrations in soil. The fruit and vegetable samples were found to contain 3.5- to 340-fold higher amounts of the six heavy metals (Co, Cd, Pb, Mn, Ni and Cu) tested. The volcanic soil, fruit and vegetable samples contain potentially carcinogenic heavy metals in such a high levels that these elements could be related to the high prevalence of upper GI cancer rates in Van region. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.