Workplace and environmental factors

Can my job or the environment affect my risk of cancer?

Exposure to harmful substances in the environment or workplace can cause cancer. Substances that cause cancer are called carcinogens.

In the UK, the government have now banned many known carcinogens. These include many used in the workplace. But some of these carcinogens can cause cancer years after you have been exposed to them.

If you have a cancer caused by your workplace, you may be able to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit.


Asbestos is a natural mineral that can damage the lungs. It is now banned in the UK. Asbestos can cause a cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer affecting the lining of the lungs or abdomen. Mesothelioma can develop many years after you are exposed to asbestos. The people most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at work include:

  • joiners and construction workers
  • plumbers
  • electricians
  • boilermakers
  • shipbuilders.

People who have not worked with asbestos can also develop mesothelioma. These may include:

  • family members of people who have worked with asbestos – sometimes caused by dust on the worker’s clothes 
  • people who lived near asbestos factories
  • people in buildings containing asbestos materials – if building work or damage disturbed the asbestos.

Other workplace causes of cancer

Some chemicals have been linked to bladder cancer. These chemicals were previously used in dye factories and other industries. Many of these chemicals are now banned. But bladder cancer can take more than 25 years to develop after you are exposed to the chemicals.

Some chemicals can also slightly increase the risk of skin cancer. Many of these chemicals are also banned.

Environmental causes of cancer

One of the main environmental causes of cancer is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. We know that many skin cancers, including melanoma, are caused by spending too much time in the sun.

The people most at risk are those who work outside, and those who are fair-skinned. There are things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Try to avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm.
  • Use a sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
  • Wear a hat that protects your head, face and neck.
  • Wear clothes with long sleeves when in the sun.

Radon is another possible source of radiation that may be linked to cancer. Radon is a natural gas that is found in rock in parts of the UK. Radon has been linked to lung cancer. But the risk is very small.

Back to Potential causes of cancer

Low immunity

People with low immunity are at a higher risk of developing some types of cancer.

Viruses and bacteria

You cannot catch cancer from someone else. But some viruses may increase your risk of developing cancer.

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (or HPV) is a common infection. Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer.