Cancer Risks Related to Occupational Exposures

OncoLink Team
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 23, 2012

Certain occupational exposures can increase cancer risk. The following 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, cola gasification, coke production, 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 and bladder cancers. PAHs have been linked to skin cancer in those occupations with a substantial amount of skin exposure to PAHs. Cancer risk from PAHs may be dependent on the amount of exposure over time and may be associated with a combination of other exposures such as asbestos, heavy metals, and smoking. These factors make it difficult to determine the degree to which PAHs alone are responsible for cancer or if cancer risk is increased due to the combination of PAH and other exposures.

Heavy Metals

Exposures to heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, cadmium and arsenic have shown a link to certain cancers. In many studies, it is not clear whether exposure to these metals alone is leading to an increased cancer risk, or if it is dependent upon the amount and type of metal exposure or a combination of exposures and cigarette smoking that is increasing cancer risk. 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 risk for lung cancer.

Arsenic has been linked to an increased risk of lung, kidney, 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).

Leather, Rubber or Woodworking Industries

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

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

Occupational exposure in the leather industry, such as, shoe-making/repair and the manufacturing 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 sinuses cancers, mostly due to the inhalation of wood dust particles. There may be 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 Word War I and more recently in the Iran-Iraq conflict that took place in the 1980s. Exposure to mustard gas increases risk for lung cancer. Some studies show that lung cancer in individuals 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.

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.