Formaldehyde exposure and leukemia: a new meta-analysis and potential mechanisms

Mutat Res. 2009 Mar-Jun;681(2-3):150-168. doi: 10.1016/j.mrrev.2008.07.002. Epub 2008 Jul 15.


Formaldehyde is an economically important chemical, to which more than 2 million U.S. workers are occupationally exposed. Substantially more people are exposed to formaldehyde environmentally, as it is generated by automobile engines, is a component of tobacco smoke and is released from household products, including furniture, particleboard, plywood, and carpeting. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen that causes nasopharyngeal cancer and also concluded that there is "strong but not sufficient evidence for a causal association between leukemia and occupational exposure to formaldehyde". Here, we review the epidemiological studies published to date on formaldehyde-exposed workers and professionals in relation to lymphohematopoietic malignances. In a new meta-analysis of these studies, focusing on occupations known to have high formaldehyde exposure, we show that summary relative risks (RRs) were elevated in 15 studies of leukemia (RR=1.54; confidence interval (CI), 1.18-2.00) with the highest relative risks seen in the six studies of myeloid leukemia (RR=1.90; 95% CI, 1.31-2.76). The biological plausibility of this observed association is discussed and potential mechanisms proposed. We hypothesize that formaldehyde may act on bone marrow directly or, alternatively, may cause leukemia by damaging the hematopoietic stem or early progenitor cells that are located in the circulating blood or nasal passages, which then travel to the bone marrow and become leukemic stem cells. To test these hypotheses, we recommend that future studies apply biomarkers validated for other chemical leukemogens to the study of formaldehyde.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogens
  • DNA Damage / drug effects
  • Formaldehyde / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Leukemia / etiology*
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*


  • Carcinogens
  • Formaldehyde