Formation, Accumulation, and Hydrolysis of Endogenous and Exogenous Formaldehyde-Induced DNA Damage

Toxicol Sci. 2015 Jul;146(1):170-82. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfv079. Epub 2015 Apr 21.


Formaldehyde is not only a widely used chemical with well-known carcinogenicity but is also a normal metabolite of living cells. It thus poses unique challenges for understanding risks associated with exposure. N(2-)hydroxymethyl-dG (N(2)-HOMe-dG) is the main formaldehyde-induced DNA mono-adduct, which together with DNA-protein crosslinks (DPCs) and toxicity-induced cell proliferation, play important roles in a mutagenic mode of action for cancer. In this study, N(2)-HOMe-dG was shown to be an excellent biomarker for direct adduction of formaldehyde to DNA and the hydrolysis of DPCs. The use of inhaled [(13)CD2]-formaldehyde exposures of rats and primates coupled with ultrasensitive nano ultra performance liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry permitted accurate determinations of endogenous and exogenous formaldehyde DNA damage. The results show that inhaled formaldehyde only reached rat and monkey noses, but not tissues distant to the site of initial contact. The amounts of exogenous adducts were remarkably lower than those of endogenous adducts in exposed nasal epithelium. Moreover, exogenous adducts accumulated in rat nasal epithelium over the 28-days exposure to reach steady-state concentrations, followed by elimination with a half-life (t1/2) of 7.1 days. Additionally, we examined artifact formation during DNA preparation to ensure the accuracy of nonlabeled N(2)-HOMe-dG measurements. These novel findings provide critical new data for understanding major issues identified by the National Research Council Review of the 2010 Environmental Protection Agency's Draft Integrated Risk Information System Formaldehyde Risk Assessment. They support a data-driven need for reflection on whether risks have been overestimated for inhaled formaldehyde, whereas underappreciating endogenous formaldehyde as the primary source of exposure that results in bone marrow toxicity and leukemia in susceptible humans and rodents deficient in DNA repair.

Keywords: DNA monoadducts; DNA-protein crosslinks; accumulation; artifacts; distribution; endogenous; exogenous; formaldehyde; half-life; nano liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry; steady state.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • DNA / drug effects*
  • DNA Damage*
  • Formaldehyde / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Hydrolysis
  • Rats
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Formaldehyde
  • DNA