Potential risk factors and causes of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

The cause of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) isn’t known, but research is going on all the time to find out more about it. Like other cancers, ALL isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.

There are a number of factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing ALL. Having a particular risk factor doesn’t mean you will definitely get ALL. And people without any known risk factors can still develop it. The known risk factors of ALL are:

Radiation exposure

Exposure to very high radiation levels (such as those during a nuclear accident or an atom bomb) increases the risk of developing ALL. However, very few people in the UK will be exposed to radiation levels high enough to increase their risk.

In recent years there has been publicity about the increase in leukaemia in people living close to nuclear power plants. Research is still underway to see if there is any definite link, but currently there is no evidence of this.

Research has shown that a person’s risk of developing ALL is not significantly increased by:

  • exposure to electromagnetic fields 
  • living near high-voltage electricity cables 
  • exposure to radon gas, which can pass from the soil into the foundations of some buildings in parts of the UK, such as the Peak District and the South West. 

Genetic conditions

ALL is not caused by an inherited faulty gene, so members of your family don’t have an increased risk of developing ALL just because you have it. However, people with certain genetic disorders, including Down’s syndrome and Fanconi’s anaemia, are known to have a higher risk of developing leukaemia.

Exposure to chemicals

In very rare cases, leukaemia may occur in people who have been exposed to chemicals used in industry, such as benzene and other solvents.

Infection

It is thought that ALL develops because of changes to a certain type of immature blood cell. What causes the changes is not fully understood, but infection may be involved. However, no specific infections have been found to cause leukaemia.

Back to Diagnosing

How acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is diagnosed

You might notice changes in your body. There are lots of possible causes for different symptoms, so it’s important to know what to look out for. If your doctor wants to find out more they might organise different tests or scans.