This study assesses the effect of occupational exposure to specific chemicals on the risk of renal cell carcinoma in Canada. Mailed questionnaires were used to obtain data on 1279 (691 male and 588 female) newly diagnosed, histologically confirmed renal cell carcinoma cases and 5370 population controls in eight Canadian provinces, between 1994 and 1997. Data were collected on socio‐economic status, smoking habit, alcohol use, diet, residential and occupational histories, and years of exposure to any of 17 chemicals. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were derived using unconditional logistic regression. The study found an increased risk of renal cell carcinoma in males only, which was associated with occupational exposure to benzene; benzidine; coal tar, soot, pitch, creosote or asphalt; herbicides; mineral, cutting or lubricating oil; mustard gas; pesticides; and vinyl chloride. Compared with no exposure to the specific chemical, the adjusted ORs were 1.8 (95% CI = 1.2–2.6), 2.1 (1.3–3.6), 1.4 (1.1–1.8), 1.6 (1.3–2.0), 1.3 (1.1–1.7), 4.6 (1.7–12.5), 1.8 (1.4–2.3) and 2.0 (1.2–3.3), respectively; an elevated risk was also associated with exposure to cadmium salts and isopropyl oil. The risk of renal cell carcinoma increased with duration of exposure to benzene, benzidine, cadmium, herbicides and vinyl chloride. Very few females were exposed to specific chemicals in this study; further research is needed to clarify the association between occupational exposure to chemicals and renal cell carcinoma in females.