Cancer Risks Related to Occupational Exposures

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Content Contributor: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN and Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 15, 2024

Some occupational exposures (things you come into contact with at work) can increase cancer risk. This article reviews some of these exposures. For more information on these and other occupational risks, visit the OSHA website.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposure is common in industries such as aluminum production, coal gasification, coke production in the coal industry, iron and steel foundries, coal tar, diesel engine exhaust, carbon black and carbon electrodes production, coal miners, roofing, road paving, and chimney sweeps. Most studies show a likely increase in lung, skin, and bladder cancers. PAHs have been linked to skin cancer in occupations with a large amount of skin exposure to PAHs. Cancer risk from PAHs may depend on the amount of exposure over time and may be linked to other exposures such as asbestos, heavy metals, and smoking.

Heavy Metals

Exposure to heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic has shown a link to certain cancers. In many studies, it is not clear whether exposure to these metals alone leads to increased cancer risk. It might depend on the amount and type of metal exposure or if you also have exposure to cigarette smoking. Occupational exposure to nickel and chromium has shown a strong link to lung cancer and may increase the risk of nasal cancer. Cadmium and beryllium exposure may also increase the risk of lung cancer.

Arsenic has been linked to an increased risk of lung, bladder, and skin cancers. Arsenic can be found in drinking water (mostly from wells), is used in making some pesticides, and may be inhaled by smelter workers (mining/metal industry). Before 2003, arsenic was used as a preservative in pressure-treated wood. If you have well water, you can have it tested to see if it has arsenic in it.

Leather, Rubber or Woodworking Industries

Occupational exposure to rubber, leather, and woodworking may increase the risk of some cancers. Certain roles in these industries are at higher risk than others and increased exposure over longer periods results in higher risk.

Occupational exposure in the rubber-making industry has been linked to an increased risk of bladder, lung, and larynx cancers, as well as leukemia.

Occupational exposure in the leather industry, such as shoemaking/repair and the making of other leather goods has been linked to an increased risk for bladder, sinus, and nasal cancers.

Occupational exposure in the woodworking industry, such as furniture making, sawmills, and construction carpentry, has been linked to an increased risk for nasal cavity and sinus cancers, mostly due to breathing in wood dust bits. There may also be an increased risk for cancer of the larynx and lung.

Mustard Gas

Mustard gas, also known as sulfur mustard, was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I and more recently in the Iran-Iraq conflict that took place in the 1980s. Exposure to mustard gas increases the risk of lung cancer. Some studies show that lung cancer in people exposed to mustard gas tends to develop at a younger age than would be expected and that the risk decreases as more time passes from exposure.

Agent Orange

Agent Orange was an herbicide used during the Vietnam War. Many Veterans were exposed to this compound while serving their country. Many cancers have been linked to Agent Orange exposure, including lung and prostate cancers, sarcoma, chronic leukemia, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Industrial Paint

Occupational exposure to dyes, paints, metal coatings, and wood varnishes/stains, has been linked to an increased risk of lung and bladder cancer.

In many cases, there are policies in place to protect workers from known occupational exposures. It is important to wear and use protective equipment to help prevent exposure to cancer-causing materials.

American Cancer Society (2023). Arsenic and Cancer Risk

Bosetti, C., Boffetta, P., & La Vecchia, C. (2006). Occupational exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and respiratory and urinary tract cancers: a quantitative review to 2005. Annals of Oncology, 18(3), 431-446.

Illinois Department of Health. Cancer risk factors

International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Volume 100C: Arsenic, Metals, Fibres, and Dusts. 2012. Found at

Olsson, A., & Kromhout, H. (2021). Occupational cancer burden: the contribution of exposure to process-generated substances at the workplace. Molecular oncology, 15(3), 753–763.

Rota, M., Bosetti, C., Boccia, S., Boffetta, P., & La Vecchia, C. (2014). Occupational exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and respiratory and urinary tract cancers: an updated systematic review and a meta-analysis to 2014. Archives of toxicology, 88(8), 1479-1490.

U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Military Exposures information.

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