A recent article appearing in The New York Times stated that the World Health Organization (WHO) "officially announced" that diesel fumes cause lung cancer. This is probably no surprise to anyone who has ridden behind an ancient diesel truck in heavy traffic, sucking in the fumes. People who are sensitive to diesel fumes often find themselves pulling over, changing lanes or passing the offending vehicles to get away from the effects of diesel exhaust. While modern diesel engines in the United States–whether in use by industry or in vehicles on the road–are required to burn cleaner than they did ten years ago, health problems caused by diesel exhaust are rampant in poor countries, where trucks, farm and heavy equipment, as well as factory machinery, continue to fill the air with sulfur-containing particulates unabated.
The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) medical director, Dr. Otis W. Brawley also concurred with WHO’s decision noting that the ACS had long-standing concerns about diesel exhaust and would probably follow suit in declaring diesel exhaust a cause of lung cancer. Brawley noted that people in jobs, such as toll collection and mining, would be more at risk than the average person who encounters a diesel truck on the road.
Three U.S. government agencies had already classified diesel exhaust a "potential occupational carcinogen" or "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" or a "likely carcinogen." Chief of Environmental Epidemiology, Debra T. Silverman, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute (of the National Institutes of Health) authored a study which reviewed 50 years of exposure to diesel fumes by 12,000 miners who were heavily exposed to diesel fumes, whose findings led to the conclusion and announcement. Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, noted that regulations and new technology have improved particulate emissions over the past ten years. Ultra-low-sulfur fuel introduced in 2000 became mandatory in 2006. ACS’ Dr. Brawley noted that managing exposure to diesel exhaust will become an important priority.
There likely are, however, many industries in the United States that still use old diesel equipment, including construction, manufacturing, and farming. For those working in those or other industries where diesel fumes are breathed on a daily or frequent basis, they may want to take precautions and consult with a physician about what precautions may be most suitable and feasible.