Ethics in Medicine

Diesel Exhaust and Cancer

Kristen Sparrow • June 13, 2012

In the “First Do No Harm” category, we have more ill effects of burning fossil fuels. I think I may need to add a category called “People Being Afraid of the Wrong Things.”  With all the concern about terrorism, swine flu, Western Equine, and then something as ubiquitous as diesel fumes being highly carcinogenic, makes you think. This is pretty stern stuff and likely to affect policy and perhaps even some disability claims.  It will, hopefully, affect working conditions for some positions, such as miners and toll takers.  We’ve discussed some of the nasty effects of air pollution in recent posts for example the damage that small particles do in air pollution, and the toll that air pollution takes in terms of cardiac and even mental health.

W.H.O. Declares Diesel Fumes Cause Lung Cancer

Diesel fumes cause lung cancer, the World Health Organization declared Tuesday, and experts said they were more carcinogenic than secondhand cigarette smoke.

The W.H.O. decision, the first to elevate diesel to the “known carcinogen” level, may eventually affect some American workers who are heavily exposed to exhaust. It is particularly relevant to poor countries, where trucks, generators, and farm and factory machinery routinely belch clouds of sooty smoke and fill the air with sulfurous particulates…

“I don’t think it’s bad to have a diesel car,” Dr. Brawley added. “I don’t think it’s good to breathe its exhaust. I’m not concerned about people who walk past a diesel vehicle, I’m a little concerned about people like toll collectors, and I’m very concerned about people like miners, who work where exhaust is concentrated.”


Then this, which is a pretty big “Yikes!!”

Dr. Silverman, chief of environmental epidemiology for the National Cancer Institute, said her study of 50 years of exposure to diesel fumes by 12,000 miners showed that nonsmoking miners who were heavily exposed to diesel fumes for years had seven times the normal lung cancer risk of nonsmokers.

The W.H.O. decision was announced Tuesday in Lyon, France, after a weeklong scientific meeting. It also said diesel exhaust was a possible cause of bladder cancer. Diesel exhaust now shares the W.H.O.’s Group 1 carcinogen status with smoking, asbestos, ultraviolet radiation, alcohol and other elements that pose cancer risks.