Acetaldehyde in Alcohol Causes Hangovers and Cancer

Author: Wiley-Blackwell
Published: 2009/03/20 - Updated: 2019/04/02
Contents: Summary - Introduction - Main - Related

Synopsis: Acetaldehyde in alcohol doesn't just cause hangovers - study reveals drinking alcohol is the greatest risk factor for acetaldehyde related cancer.


Acetaldehyde in alcohol - no longer just the chemical that causes a hangover.

A new study published in the journal Addiction shows that drinking alcohol is the greatest risk factor for acetaldehyde-related cancer. Heavy drinkers may be at increased risk due to exposure from multiple sources.

Main Digest

Ethanol to Acetaldehyde in Humans

Ethanol, an alcohol found in nature and in alcoholic drinks, is metabolized through a complex catabolic metabolic pathway. The average human digestive system produces approximately 3 g of ethanol per day through fermentation of its contents.

In human adults, ethanol is oxidized to acetaldehyde using NAD+, mainly via the hepatic enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase IB (class I), beta polypeptide (ADH1B, EC The gene coding for this enzyme is located on chromosome 4, locus 4q21-q23. The enzyme encoded by this gene is a member of the alcohol dehydrogenase family. Members of this enzyme family metabolize a wide variety of substrates, including ethanol, retinol, other aliphatic alcohols, hydroxysteroids, and lipid peroxidation products.

Acetaldehyde - Ubiquitous in Daily Life

Widely present in the environment, it is inhaled from the air and tobacco smoke, ingested from alcohol and foods, and produced in the human body during the metabolism of alcoholic beverages. Research indicates that this organic chemical plays a significant role in the development of certain types of cancers (especially of the upper digestive tract), and it is currently classified as possibly carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization.

New research from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory Karlsruhe (CVUA) in Germany recently provided the necessary methodology for calculating the risk for the ingestion of alcoholic beverages.

The research team found that risk from ingesting acetaldehyde via alcoholic beverages alone may exceed usual safety limits for heavy drinkers.

Their risk assessment study found that the average exposure to acetaldehyde from alcoholic beverages resulted in a life-time cancer risk of 7.6/10,000, with higher risk scenarios (e.g. contaminations in unrecorded alcohol) in the range of 1 in 1,000. As such, the life-time cancer risks for acetaldehyde from ingestion of alcoholic beverages greatly exceed the usual limits for cancer risks from the environment.

The team noted, however, that this risk is compounded by the addition of acetaldehyde exposure from different sources.

"The problem with acetaldehyde has been that although it has been recognized as toxic by Health Canada some years ago, most risk assessments to date were based on one source of exposure only" explained Dr. Jurgen Rehm, the lead scientist of the Toronto group and head of the Public Health and Regulatory Policies section at CAMH. "This has led to a negligence of the overall risk."

For example, in Toronto, even though there are limits for air exposure of acetaldehyde set by the responsible Public Health agency, these limits have been surpassed in the past. Alone, the risks associated with surpassing limits of acetaldehyde from the air may not yet be alarming, but for heavy drinkers and smokers, it adds to the acetaldehyde levels already received from these sources. This overall risk then surpasses established safety limits.

Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Recommendations

Based on their study the scientists of CAMH recommend:


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Cite This Page (APA): Wiley-Blackwell. (2009, March 20 - Last revised: 2019, April 2). Acetaldehyde in Alcohol Causes Hangovers and Cancer. Disabled World. Retrieved June 14, 2024 from

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