Diesel exhaust is emitted from a broad range of diesel engines; the on-road diesel engines of trucks, buses, and cars and the off-road diesel engines that include locomotives, marine vessels, and heavy-duty equipment. Diesel exhaust is a pervasive airborne contaminant in workplaces where diesel-powered equipment is used.

The most common exposure pathway is breathing the air that contains diesel particulate matter. The fine and ultrafine particles are respirable which means that they can avoid many of the human respiratory system defense mechanisms and enter deeply into the lung.

Diesel engine exhaust has now been definitively linked to causing cancer in humans. A panel of experts working for the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded-unanimously-in June 2012 that diesel exhausts definitely cause lung cancer. After a week-long meeting of international experts, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer. WHO based its findings on research in high-risk workers including railway workers.

Similarly, American scientists found an increased risk of developing lung cancer in workers exposed to diesel fuel exhaust. The Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study (DEMS) carried out by researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found an increased risk for lung cancer death with increasing levels of exposure to diesel exhaust. Risks among heavily exposed workers were about three times greater than the risk among workers with low exposure to diesel exhaust. The researchers also reported that non-smokers with high levels of diesel exposure were seven times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-smokers in the lowest exposure category.

Although the DEMS investigators studied miners with very high exposure levels, workers in other settings are also exposed to diesel exhaust. These study results should be broadly applicable to other workers with similar levels of exposure to diesel exhaust.

The workers in the DEMS experienced a wide range of exposure levels. In urban areas with heavy pollution from diesel exhaust, environmental exposures for the general population may be in the range of 2 to 6 micrograms (µg) of respirable elemental carbon per cubic meter (m 3). If accumulated over a lifetime (e.g., 60 years), this exposure approximates the cumulative exposures experienced by underground miners with the lowest exposures. Workers with this exposure level experienced about a 50 percent increased lung cancer risk; however, based on DEMS, researchers cannot estimate with certainty the risks from diesel exposure for very low levels of pollution in the general environment. The study will provide valuable data for risk assessors to extrapolate down from high to low levels of diesel exhaust exposure.

The DEMS data involved both a cohort analysis, in which the scientists looked at all deaths of miners from lung cancer and other causes, and a case-control study, which focused on lung cancer victims alone, controlling for smoking, other respiratory ailments, and employment in high-risk fields. The largely enclosed work environment of an underground mine allows emissions to build to higher levels than the general population’s exposure level and then the level likely to be found in outdoor settings such as shipyards and truck depots.

The United States National Institutes of Health-National Toxicology Program’s 2011 Report on Carcinogens classified diesel exhaust as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” And now the IARC has determined diesel exhaust IS a human carcinogen.

At-Risk Occupations: Railroad Workers, Miners, Heavy Machine Operators, and Truck Drivers

The results from both DEMS studies together demonstrated the increased risk for lung cancer amongst miners with exposure to diesel fumes. Due to the expanding use of diesel equipment, more and more workers are exposed to diesel exhaust. More than one million workers are exposed to diesel exhaust and face the risk of adverse health effects, ranging from headaches and nausea to cancer and respiratory disease. Such workers include mine workers, bridge and tunnel workers, railroad workers, loading dock workers, truck drivers, material handling machine operators, farmworkers, longshoring employees, and auto, truck, and bus maintenance garage workers.

For decades, the industry has relied upon diesel engines as a “cheaper” alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles, and ports and train depots have widely used heavily polluting diesel engines in trucks, cranes, ships, trains, and other equipment. In the process, industry needlessly over-exposed countless workers, drivers, conductors, engineers, and others to cancer-causing pollution in doses sufficient to cause cancer and in doses many times those of the civilian population.

Working with large equipment powered by diesel fuel is common to ports and train operations and all workers with a history of such exposures who have contracted cancer should look closely at their potential rights.

Get in Touch with a Diesel Fumes Attorney

Our attorneys are currently evaluating cases related to diesel fumes. If you have been exposed to diesel exhaust at your current or previous job and have developed lung or bladder cancer you may be entitled to compensation. Even if you were or are a smoker, your lung and/or bladder cancer may still also be related to your exposure to diesel fuel exhaust. If you or a loved one has an injury or disease associated with diesel exhaust exposure, please contact a diesel fumes lawyer at our office.