OBJECTIVES: Studies in traditional paper mills have indicated an excess cancer risk, and mutagenic compounds have been identified in the industry. No studies have reported on risk of cancer in paper recycling. Therefore the cancer incidence in Danish paper recycling mills was investigated. METHODS: 5377 employees in five paper recycling plants were included in a historical cohort study. The workers had been employed in paper recycling in 1965-90, and the cohort was followed up until 31 December 1993. The expected number of cancer cases was calculated from national rates. RESULTS: There was significantly more pharyngeal cancer among male workers (seven observed (standardised incidence ratio (SIR) 3.33, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.34 to 6.87)). There was slightly more lung cancer among male workers in production (39 observed, SIR 1.21, 95% CI 0.86 to 1.65). Risk of Hodgkin's disease was doubled in male production worker (four observed, SIR 1.90, 95% CI 0.51 to 4.85). CONCLUSIONS: The increased risk of pharyngeal cancer found in this study is interesting but may be influenced by confounders such as smoking and alcohol intake. This study also indicates an excess risk of Hodgkin's disease, which is in accordance with some studies in the traditional paper mills. As this is the first report on risk of cancer in paper recycling, further studies are needed.