Though the cancer risks from exposure to diesel emissions have been known for many years, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), officially announced that diesel emissions were carcinogenic to humans. The agency cited the robust body of scientific literature on the issue and stated that diesel emissions were associated with lung cancer and bladder cancer. WHO estimates that cancer kills 7.6 million people worldwide, and is the leading cause of death globally in 2008. Of all cancers, lung cancer is the most lethal, and accounted for 18 percent of all cancer deaths, the agency said.
Such findings should raise awareness about diesel exhaust as an important public health threat – a threat equivalent to secondhand smoke, according to the WHO. Kurt Straif, director of the agency’s department evaluating cancer risks, told the Associated Press that "It's on the same order of magnitude as passive smoking” and that these results could mean “another big push for countries to clean up exhaust from diesel engines."
The agency stated in a news release that there had been mounting concern about the cancer-causing potential of diesel exhaust, particularly based on findings in epidemiological studies of workers exposed in various settings. This was reemphasized by the March 2012 publication of results from the U.S. National Cancer Institute/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of occupational exposure to such emissions for underground miners. That study showed an increased risk of death from lung cancer in exposed workers.
The public health impacts from these findings are immense. Large populations are exposed to diesel exhaust everyday, whether through work or ambient air. Trucks, trains and ships are among the leading emitters of diesel engine fumes.
At EDF, we have long understood the correlation between transportation exhaust and cancer-causing air pollution. Our work to educate and influence policies for replacement of aging school bus engines and port drayage truck engines, just to name a couple of initiatives, has helped improve fuel efficiency and reduce harmful emissions in Texas.
The alarm bell has been rung. Governments worldwide now need to ramp up efforts to reduce diesel emissions exposure for people everywhere.
Although the United States currently requires diesel engines “to burn much cleaner than they did even a decade ago,” we need to keep pressing ahead to replace the older, dirtier engines out there with newer, cleaner ones. Our health depends on it.