Upper airway cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other cancers in a cohort of British chemical workers exposed to formaldehyde

Am J Epidemiol. 2014 Jun 1;179(11):1301-11. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwu049. Epub 2014 Apr 8.


The International Agency for Research on Cancer controversially has classified formaldehyde as causing nasopharyngeal carcinoma and myeloid leukemia. To provide further information on this question, we extended follow-up of a cohort of 14,008 chemical workers at 6 factories in England and Wales, covering the period 1941-2012. Mortality was compared with national death rates for England and Wales, and associations with incident upper airway cancer and leukemia were explored in nested case-control analyses. We observed excess deaths from cancers of the esophagus (100 observed vs. 93.1 expected), stomach (182 vs. 141.4), rectum (107 vs. 86.8), liver (35 vs. 26.9), and lung (813 vs. 645.8), but none of these tumors exhibited a clear exposure-response relationship. Nested case-control analyses of 115 men with upper airway cancer (including 1 nasopharyngeal cancer), 92 men with leukemia, and 45 men with myeloid leukemia indicated no elevations of risk in the highest exposure category (high exposure for ≥1 year). When the 2 highest exposure categories were combined, the odds ratio for myeloid leukemia was 1.26 (95% confidence interval: 0.39, 4.08). Our results provide no support for an increased hazard of myeloid leukemia, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or other upper airway tumors from formaldehyde exposure. These results indicate that any excess risk of these cancers, even from relatively high exposures, is at most small.

Keywords: cancer; chemical industry; formaldehyde; mortality; myeloid leukemia; nasopharyngeal cancer; occupational exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cause of Death
  • Chemical Industry*
  • England / epidemiology
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Formaldehyde / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Myeloid / chemically induced*
  • Male
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Nasopharyngeal Neoplasms / mortality
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Diseases / mortality
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Odds Ratio
  • Risk
  • Wales / epidemiology


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Formaldehyde