Formaldehyde carcinogenicity research: 30 years and counting for mode of action, epidemiology, and cancer risk assessment

James A. Swenberg, Benjamin Moeller, Kun Lu, Julia E. Rager, Rebecca C. Fry, Thomas B. Starr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

133 Scopus citations


Formaldehyde is a widely used high production chemical that is also released as a byproduct of combustion, off-gassing of various building products, and as a fixative for pathologists and embalmers. What is not often realized is that formaldehyde is also produced as a normal physiologic chemical in all living cells. In 1980, chronic inhalation of high concentrations of formaldehyde was shown to be carcinogenic, inducing a high incidence of nasal squamous cell carcinomas in rats. Some epidemiologic studies have also found increased numbers of nasopharyngeal carcinoma and leukemia in humans exposed to formaldehyde that resulted in formaldehyde being considered a Known Human Carcinogen. This article reviews the data for rodent and human carcinogenicity, early Mode of Action studies, more recent molecular studies of both endogenous and exogenous DNA adducts, and epigenetic studies. It goes on to demonstrate the power of these research studies to provide critical data to improve our ability to develop science-based cancer risk assessments, instead of default approaches. The complexity of constant physiologic exposure to a known carcinogen requires that new ways of thinking be incorporated into determinations of cancer risk assessment for formaldehyde, other endogenous carcinogens, and the role of background endogenous DNA damage and mutagenesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-189
Number of pages9
JournalToxicologic Pathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • biomarkers
  • carcinogenesis
  • environmental toxicology
  • inhalation
  • mechanisms of toxicity
  • risk assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Molecular Biology
  • Toxicology
  • Cell Biology


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