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Harmful substances and cancer - chemicals in the workplace

Occupational exposures to chemicals account for 2% of cancer deaths. People who work in certain jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry, are most likely to be exposed to high levels of synthetic chemicals. This is known as ‘occupational exposure’.

Scientists estimate that occupational exposure to cancer-causing chemicals is responsible for about 2% of cancer deaths in the UK. It is important to remember that this usually affects only a small number of people in very specific jobs.

These exposures are less of a problem now in the UK. This is because the most dangerous chemicals have been banned for several decades.

But cancer can take as much as 30-50 years to develop. So some people may have an increased risk of cancer because they previously worked with cancer-causing substances before regulations came into force.

Be sure to follow health and safety guidelines at work. Stick to safety rules at work

Dangerous chemicals still in use are heavily regulated and have strict guidelines about how they are handled. Health and safety rules are designed to protect people working with hazardous substances at work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Health Protection Agency (HPA) can provide more information about this.

Certain industrial chemicals can increase your risk of developing cancer. Legally, these chemicals must carry hazard warnings and their use is strictly controlled. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issues guidelines to protect people working with such chemicals.

The chemicals include:


  • Arsenic and related chemicals - used in glass, metal and pesticide manufacturing
  • Asbestos - used in insulation and the textiles industry
  • Benzene - present in oil and gas, used in the petroleum industry
  • Benzidine and cadmium dyes - used in the textile industry
  • Beryllium and related chemicals - used in the aerospace and metal industries
  • Chromium pigments - used in paint production
  • Some fertilisers and pesticides
  • Various organic solvents - used in rubber, textiles, paint, printing and industrial cleaning

People in manufacturing industries are more likely to encounter harmful substances. Asbestos

Asbestos is a natural resource that was used in the past to insulate buildings. It is made up of tiny fibres and breathing these in can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs).

There are three types of asbestos. Amosite (‘brown asbestos’) and crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’) are made of short, sharp fibres that our bodies find difficult to break down. Chrysotile (‘white asbestos’) is not completely safe but is less dangerous than the other two types. Its fibres are long, soft and easily broken down in the body.

All asbestos was banned in the UK since 1999, so modern products should be asbestos-free. If you own a house or item that contains asbestos, don’t panic. It is relatively harmless if left alone.

Asbestos only becomes dangerous when its fibres are released into the air as a result of work or physical damage. Workers who were involved in refurbishing or repairing structures containing asbestos are therefore most at risk.

What to do about asbestos

It usually takes a long time (between 15 and 40 years) for people to develop cancer after they have been exposed to asbestos. This is why mesothelioma is becoming more common now, because asbestos was used heavily in industry after World War II. If you develop mesothelioma through asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for compensation.

If you are concerned about the presence of asbestos-containing materials, it is important to get advice from an approved contractor. You can find one by contacting the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association. In the meantime, leave the asbestos untouched to avoid releasing any fibres.

Ionising radiation can increase the risk of cancer by damaging DNA. Ionising radiation

Ionising radiation is a term for the high-energy emissions that are released by radioactive materials. It can come from natural sources such as radon gas. It can also be produced artificially and is used in medicine (e.g. X-ray machines) and in industry (for measurement and producing electricity).

Exposure to high levels of this type of radiation can cause cancers, especially leukaemias (cancers of the blood). In the UK, the Health Protection Agency monitors and controls our exposure levels to ionising radiation.

Employees in the nuclear industry or medical and dental professions may work with sources of radiation. If you fall into this group, then following safety guidelines can help you to reduce your risk of cancer.

Radiation from sunlight, power lines, electrical equipment and mobile phones has much less energy than radiation from X-ray machines or radon. This type of radiation is known as non-ionising radiation.

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Updated: 25 September 2009