“Clean” diesel engines for passenger vehicles have been growing in popularity over recent years, at least until the Volkswagen scandal. But not much is clean about many of the diesel engines installed in the large trucks and the heavy equipment used to build roads, farm crops, manufacture goods, and mine substances from the ground.
The millions who work in these—and certain other—industries face daily exposure to diesel exhaust, which has been implicated in lung cancer and certain other cancers. Breathing exhaust fumes can also cause regular problems for those who suffer from asthma, emphysema, and heart disease.
What Makes Diesel Exhaust So Harmful?
Diesel fuel burns “dirtier” than the gasoline used in passenger vehicles. Diesel exhaust (DE) contains particles known as DPM, or diesel particulate matter. DPM is composed mostly of organic carbon compounds, a number of which are considered cancer-causing substances. One example of such a substance is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Regular exposure to DE, diesel particulates, and PAHs creates a hazardous situation for your health.
Besides PAHs, some of the many chemical compounds found in diesel exhaust are:
- Sulfur dioxide
- Carbon monoxide
- Carbon dioxide
- Nitrogen oxides
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Aldehydes (formaldehyde and benzene)
- Soot, or pure carbon. Up to 80 percent of the black smoke emitted by a diesel engine is soot, which is particulate matter (DPM). These particles can reach the lower lungs and then remain stuck there, causing health problems over time.
Years of research has determined that a number of these substances are known carcinogens, or are heavily suspected to cause cancer. Some of these substances—like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and VOCs—are greenhouse gases that also impact our environment negatively.
Which Workers Are at Risk?
Many millions of workers are exposed to DE and DPM for hours every single day they are on the job. We’re talking folks like construction workers, heavy equipment operators, large truck drivers, garage workers and mechanics, bus drivers, bridge and tunnel workers, toll booth operators, oil and gas industry personnel, railroad employees, farm workers, materials handlers, miners, and those who work on loading docks or as longshoremen. A lifetime of exposure can add up to significant health hazards.
Those who are around diesel engines daily are most at risk. If you operate or work around the following types of equipment or machinery, you could be risking exposure to health hazards from DE and DPM:
- Large truck engines
- Rough-terrain forklifts
- Welding machinery
- Powered work platforms
- Concrete mixers and trucks
- Any equipment or machinery driven by a diesel engine.
Some researchers believe that any work condition which lacks sufficient ventilation, such as in hazardous chemical situations and in mines, can create extra risk for those who inhale diesel exhaust and particulates under such circumstances.
What Types of Health Problems Arise from DE/DPM Exposure?
If you spend your time around diesel engines, you can experience headaches, burning or itchy eyes, wheezing and coughing, and tightness in your chest. If your symptoms fade when you are not breathing DE and DPM, it’s likely your health problems are occupational.
Longer-term exposure to DE/DPM can result in chronic respiratory problems. If you suffer from respiratory difficulties such as asthma or emphysema, or if you have heart disease, your health situation can grow worse, limiting your lung capacity. Even if you do not have one of these chronic health problems, long-term exposure to DE and its particulates can increase your chances of lung cancer and, possibly, other cancers as well. NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has recommended that diesel exhaust be deemed a “potential occupational carcinogen.” Several studies in the lab have discovered that rats can develop lung cancer after long-term, heavy exposure to DE.
Cancers and DE/DPM Exposure
Studies done in people have singled out lung cancer as the form of the disease that can most likely be linked to DE exposure. Small, but significant, increases in a worker’s chance of developing the cancer are evident. Those with the heaviest exposure to diesel exhaust and particulates tend to have higher death rates from lung cancer than those who are not exposed at work.
But other cancers may also be linked to DE and DPM exposure. Some studies have uncovered relationships between DE/DPM exposure and certain cancers:
- Bladder cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Larynx cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
Other connections may exist between diesel exhaust exposure and blood cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas, but more research is needed.
Some health agencies, in addition to NIOSH mentioned above, have classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen:
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), calls DE “carcinogenic to humans,” citing a possible association with lung and bladder cancers.
- The National Toxicology Program (NTP) says that DE is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” mainly in the lungs.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers DE “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
If you are exposed to DE and DPM on a regular basis at your workplace, do what you can to minimize exposure. Shut off engines when they are not needed, and wear all safety equipment you are provided, especially respirators. An N95 respirator is recommended at a minimum.
Should you believe that your workplace exposure to diesel exhaust and particulates has resulted in a serious health situation for you, you might consider seeking legal assistance by talking it over with a trusted advisor who is a proven legal advocate when it comes to occupational injuries.