Dr. Niria Malats of the Spanish National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and colleagues also found high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium could boost the likelihood of developing the disease.
The researchers assessed 12 trace element levels in the toenails of 118 patients with exocrine pancreatic cancer -- the most common form of the disease -- and just under 400 hospital patients without cancer.
The study, published in the journal Gut, found patients with the highest levels of arsenic and cadmium in their nails were between two and 3.5 times more likely than those with the lowest levels to have pancreatic cancer, and those with the highest levels of lead were more than six times as likely to have the disease.
Those with the highest levels of nickel and selenium were between 33 percent and 95 percent less likely than those with the lowest levels to have the disease.
"Our results support an increased risk of pancreatic cancer associated with higher levels of cadmium, arsenic, and lead, as well as an inverse association with higher levels of selenium and nickel," the researchers said in a statement.