Abstract Twenty-one carbonyl compounds were measured simultaneously at four hotel ballrooms in urban Guangzhou during the autumn, 2002. In each ballroom, measurements were carried out in business hours in the evening (20:30–24:00) on 7 consecutive days without any disturbance of the ballroom's normal operation. Nineteen out of the 21 target carbonyl compounds were identified in indoor and outdoor air. In the outdoor environment, formaldehyde was the most abundant carbonyl, followed by acetaldehyde, and there existed a strong correlation between formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. In the indoor air, however, acetaldehyde was the most abundant carbonyl, its concentrations seemed to be affected significantly by smoking. The indoor concentrations of carbonyls were found higher than their outdoor counterparts with only a few exceptions. Further studies concerning the indoor/outdoor ratios and mutual correlation of the carbonyls indicated that apart from direct emission from indoor materials and infiltration of outdoor air, other anthropogenic sources, e.g. tobacco smoke, also significantly contributed to carbonyl compounds. The possible sources of some high molecular weight carbonyls, e.g. nonanaldehyde, were also discussed briefly. Preliminary estimate of the exposures and risks due to carbonyls in the ballrooms was made, which indicated that long-term exposure in such places might cause increased chance of developing cancers.