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Formaldehyde Added to Human Carcinogen List

November 2011 - Linkage Newsletter

by Victoria A. McCallum, M.P.H.

In June, the National Toxicology Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences added formaldehyde to the list of known human carcinogens in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens. This addition was based on epidemiologic evidence that higher exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, sinonasal cancer, and myeloid leukemia.

Formaldehyde was first listed in the Second Report on Carcinogens in 1981 as "reasonably anticipated" to be a human carcinogen, based on positive studies in experimental animals. Since that time, epidemiologic and toxicologic studies of occupational groups have been reported by DCEG scientists, including Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch (OEEB) scientists Laura Beane Freeman, Ph.D., Aaron E. Blair, Ph.D., M.P.H., Qing Lan, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., Lee E. Moore, Ph.D., and Nathaniel Rothman, M.D., M.P.H., M.H.S.; former OEEB scientists Dr. Richard B. Hayes, Dr. Min Shen, Dr. Patricia Stewart, and Dr. Roel Vermeulen; Director of DCEG Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D.; Director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program Robert N. Hoover, M.D., Sc.D.; and former Biostatistics Branch scientists Dr. Michael Hauptmann and Dr. Jay H. Lubin.

Formaldehyde is a high-production chemical with a wide variety of uses. Exposure can occur in numerous industries and professions, such as manufacturing of formaldehyde and formaldehyde-based resins, woodworking, and furniture making. Morticians, pathologists, and laboratory workers are commonly exposed to the chemical. The general population is also exposed to formaldehyde by breathing contaminated indoor or outdoor air and from tobacco smoke. Cleaning agents, glues, adhesives, salon products (such as hair coloring, smoothing, and straightening formulas), and other consumer goods may contain formaldehyde.

For detailed information on the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens, go to