Formaldehyde is an organic compound formed through natural processes in the environment and in the (human) body, where it is released through metabolic processes. Formaldehyde is also produced and used in various branches of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. Formaldehyde is found in products including particle board, MDF (Medium-Density Fibreboard), textiles and cosmetics.

People are mainly exposed to formaldehyde when it is released in exhaust fumes, in food preparation and in cigarette smoke.

Formaldehyde in tobacco smoke

Formaldehyde is not added to tobacco products. Rather, formaldehyde is produced when additives such as sugars, sorbitol, guar gum, cellulose fibres, and carob and gum in tobacco are burnt. Smokers inhale it when they take a puff of smoke (first-hand smoke). It is inhaled to a lesser extent by passive smokers (second-hand smoke).

Adverse health effects

Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic substance and has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 1). Formaldehyde causes cancer in the nose and trachea and can possibly cause leukaemia. Inhaling formaldehyde from tobacco smoke can also cause irritation of the airways and damage to airway cells. Formaldehyde can also be irritating for the eyes.

Effect on smoking addiction

Formaldehyde can increase dependence on smoking, which can cause smokers to smoke more in both quantity and frequency. This leads to exposure to greater amounts of toxic substances in tobacco smoke. One reaction product of formaldehyde is norharman. This chemical causes certain substances in the brain—neurotransmitters—to decompose more slowly. This effect is similar to the positive effect antidepressants have on a person’s mood, and stimulates smoking behaviour.