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Formaldehyde in Cigarette Smoke


Updated June 21, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Formaldehyde in Cigarette Smoke
Photo © Stockxpert

What Formaldehyde is:

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas with a strong odor. A small amount of formaldehyde is produced in our bodies naturally, but most formaldehyde is released into our environment by the burning of fuels and household waste. Cigarette smoke contains formaldehyde.

How Formaldehyde is Used:

Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical used in a variety of applications. It is often combined with alcohol to produce a liquid form called formalin. It's used to manufacture building materials and many household products, is present in pressed wood products, and is used a preservative. Formaldehyde is also used in glues, adhesives and disinfectant products.

How People are Exposed to Formaldehyde:

The most common method of exposure for people is breathing air tainted with formaldehyde in poorly ventilated indoor environments. Products made with formaldehyde can release this gas over time, and cigarette smoke is laden with formaldehyde as well.

Formaldehyde in Cigarette Smoke:

Formaldehyde is a by-product of the combustion process of tobacco smoking. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health entitled, "Irritants in Cigarette Smoke Plumes," formaldehyde in sidestream cigarette smoke is evident in concentrations of up to three times occupational limits. Formaldehyde is responsible for some of the nose, throat and eye irritation smokers experience when breathing in cigarette smoke.

Short-Term Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure:

When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 parts per million, some individuals may experience short-term health effects, including:
  • watering of the eyes
  • burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • nausea
  • skin irritation
Some people appear to be quite sensitive to formaldehyde, while others have no reaction to the same level of exposure. People who are sensitive to formaldehyde run the risk of developing asthma from continued exposure to inhaled formaldehyde.

Long-Term Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure:

Although the short-term health effects of formaldehyde exposure are well-known, less is known about possible long-term health effects. Lab studies have shown that exposure to formaldehyde could cause nasal cancer in rats, and some studies of industrial workers have suggested that formaldehyde exposure might be associated with nasal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer in humans. In 1995, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that formaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen. However, in a reevaluation of existing data in June 2004, the IARC reclassified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

More on The Chemicals in Cigarettes:

Cigarette smoke is a toxic cocktail of over 7,000 chemicals, including 250 poisonous and 70 carcinogenic compounds.

Formaldehyde Exposures from Tobacco Smoke: a Review. T. Godish. August, 1989. American Journal of Public Health.

IARC Classifies Formaldehyde as Carcinogenic to Humans. 15 June, 2004. International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Irritants in Cigarette Smoke Plumes. Ayer, HE, Yeager, DW. 1982 Nov; 72(11): 1283-5. American Journal of Public Health.

Toxfaqs for Formaldehyde. June, 1999. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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