How formaldehyde reprograms our cells for cancer

Formaldehyde was named a known human carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2011.

You would think that meant the chemical was completely eradicated from the consumer supply chain, right?

Wrong! Thanks to the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency, formaldehyde can still be found in many of the products used not only to build and insulate the homes we live in, but in the things we fill our homes with — like furniture, synthetic fabric, foam insulation, wallpaper and paint, even some personal care products.

Researchers have been working overtime to try to clarify formaldehyde’s link with cancer, precisely how it hijacks our genes and reprograms genetic patterns…

Formaldehyde’s influence on your epigenetics

Epigenetics is the study of the biological mechanisms that control the activity of our genes — and how our behaviors and environment can affect the way our genes work.

And per the CDC, unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.

An international team of researchers has discovered that formaldehyde is a powerful modifier of normal epigenetic patterns. This means that formaldehyde, though previously considered to act only as a DNA mutagen, actually interferes with the epigenetic programming of cells.

Dr. Manel Esteller, group leader and director of the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute, explains how this happens…

“We have discovered that formaldehyde is an inhibitor of the MAT1A protein, which is the main producer of S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAM), and this last molecule is the universal donor of the chemical group ‘methyl’ that regulates epigenetic activity. Specifically, we found that exposure to formaldehyde induced a reduction in SAM content and caused the loss of methylation of histones, proteins that package our DNA and control the function of thousands of genes.”

To put it more simply, Dr. Lucas Pontel, group leader at the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute, says the researchers have found “formaldehyde has the capacity to modify the epigenetic landscape of our cells, which might contribute to the well-documented carcinogenic properties of formaldehyde.”

Formaldehyde already has been linked with an increased risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia, as well as asthma and hepatic degeneration due to fatty liver.

Counteracting formaldehyde’s effects

To fully understand the implications of these findings, I need to share something Dr. Mark Wiley wrote

“Epigenetics shows us that our genetic code merely presents us with our health potential; not an absolute dictate of events now or to come. So even if Alzheimer’s or autism or cancer runs in your family, such devastating diseases need not affect you specifically.”

Formaldehyde’s ability to moderate our epigenetic patterns changes all that and more. So what can you do to reduce your exposure?

Dr. Esteller explains that “formaldehyde enters our body mainly during our breathing and, because it dissolves well in an aqueous medium, it ends up reaching all the cells of our body,” so start there…

  • Don’t smoke, since formaldehyde is part of cigarette smoke.
  • Work at improving the air inside your home by keeping temperature and humidity levels as low as you comfortably can (to avoid the off-gassing of chemicals in building materials and furnishings).
  • Avoid furniture, wood flooring and cabinets made with glues containing urea-formaldehyde (UF). Better choices include pressed wood products that meet ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) or no-added formaldehyde (NAF) requirements.
  • Look for products labeled no VOC or low VOC. VOC stands for volatile organic compounds, which are a large group of chemicals that are found in many products we use to build and maintain our homes.
  • Use an air purifier in your home with a HEPA filter and keep air-purifying plants in every room.
  • Swap out your insulation if you have an older home.
  • Follow a site like where you can check the air quality in your area and reduce your activity level or shorten the amount of time you’re active outdoors.
  • This one may come as a surprise: Ditch the diet sodas and any packaged foods labeled “sugar-free,” since it’s a pretty good bet they’re sweetened with aspartame. The researchers note that formaldehyde can also be generated in the body through the metabolism of common dietary substances like the artificial sweetener aspartame.

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A known environmental hazard can change the epigenetics of cells — ScienceDaily

Formaldehyde regulates S-adenosylmethionine biosynthesis and one-carbon metabolism — Science

What is epigenetics? — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.