The study at Sheffield University will focus on high levels of bladder cancer which is caused primarily by smoking or exposure to workplace chemicals.
Many cases are found in Doncaster, Rotherham and in particular Barnsley, where death rates from the condition in 2007-09 were 50 per cent above the national average, one of the highest rates in the country.
Experts believe cases could be linked to the metal industry which employed four in 10 men in South Yorkshire as recently 40 years ago, raising the possibility of compensation payouts to victims and new laws to protect workers. Some 2,000 patients treated for the illness at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield will be surveyed for their occupational histories.
Researcher James Catto, who is leading the three-year investigation funded by the charity Yorkshire Cancer Research, said: “Bladder cancer is a common and serious problem in Yorkshire. The trend for smoking is the same in most parts of the country so we believe there is an occupational factor.
“During our investigation we will treat normal cells with metals that people are exposed to during work to see if they cause the cancerous changes in the test tube.
“We hope that by the end of these investigations we will have evidence to help the Government bring in new legislation to protect workers.”
Links between industry and bladder cancer were established in the Victorian era. Some chemicals found in the rubber and dye trades are only used in a controlled environment owing to the risks they pose.
But researchers fear metal industries could be using chemicals in a less controlled way or chemicals not yet known to cause cancer.
As well as improving the way chemicals are used, the team hope to identify those at high risk of developing cancer so it can be caught early or prevented and develop treatments that could minimise the toxicity of chemicals.
Research liaison officer Kathryn Scott for Yorkshire Cancer Research said: “The hope is that key chemicals which cause cells to switch from normal to cancerous can be identified so that workers can be protected from exposure in the future and ultimately reduce the incidence rates of this common cancer in South Yorkshire.”
Latest figures for 2006-8 show there were 250 deaths in men from the illness in South Yorkshire.