World Health Organization Declares Diesel Fumes Cause Cancer

You might think your exposure to the fumes is limited, but that would be wishful thinking.
Exhaust from diesel engines poses significant health risks. (Matt Cardy/Getty)
Jun 12, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

During the 1970s, diesel cars saw a sudden surge in popularity and sales due to the OPEC oil embargo. People thought maybe they’d found the answer to their gas-guzzling vehicles. But the trend never really caught on once the oil crisis eased—and it appears that was a good thing.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, declared yesterday that diesel fumes cause lung cancer “and experts said they were more carcinogenic than secondhand cigarette smoke . . . 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,” reports The New York Times.

The newspaper went on to note that the W.H.O also said that diesel exhaust was a possible cause of bladder cancer and that it ”now shares the W.H.O.’s Group 1 carcinogen status with smoking, asbestos, ultraviolet radiation, alcohol and other elements that pose cancer risks.”

While minimal exposure is not likely harmful, Medill Reports observed that “those who work as truck drivers, bridge and tunnel workers, mine workers, farm workers, forklift drivers, railroad and dock workers, construction workers and garage workers may be at risk of developing significant health problems.”

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I don’t work in any of those industries,” don’t get comfortable just yet.

The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment explains that, “Diesel fuel is widely used throughout our society. It powers the trucks that deliver products to our communities, the buses that carry us to school and work, the agricultural equipment that plants and harvests our food, and the backup generators that can provide electricity during emergencies . . . Diesel engines have historically been more versatile and cheaper to run than gasoline engines or other sources of power. Unfortunately, the exhaust from these engines contains substances that can pose a risk to human health.” And that observation proceeded the W.H.O report.

In fact, the warnings about diesel fuel have been percolating for years. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The California Air Resources Board came to the same conclusion in 1998, finding that particulates associated with diesel emissions from trains, trucks, tractors and construction equipment pose a hazard to public health. That decision was met with an outcry from fuel producers and other industry groups who argued that regulating diesel emissions would cripple California’s economy.”

The Times goes on to quote John Froines, a professor of public health at UCLA, who said the announcement will be difficult to refute because the International Agency for Research on Cancer is known to be conservative. “The implications of this decision are immense,” he said. “That agency is the most prestigious scientific organization in the world” . . . “What happens next?” Froines speculated. “In the United States, one would hope that the Environmental Protection Agency would adopt the same stance, and that other states would follow IARC’s lead.”

Yes, one can hope.

Are you concerned about exposure to diesel fuel in your community?

Lawrence Karol is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City in a mid-century-modern-inspired apartment with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet editor, who enjoys writing about design, food, and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

John Besh: Why I Take Part in Rebuilding New Orleans