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Diesel fumes pose dangerous health risks, study shows

by Kayla Webley
April 16, 2008

How many times a day do you smell diesel exhaust?

On a random Tuesday a reporter counted five instances where the odor of diesel was unmistakable. 

The first time was near a construction site for a new hospital, and the next two times were by road construction sites.The fourth time occurred  while riding a shuttle bus.  And a fifth time happened when a driver revved up his  diesel truck.

While such minimal exposure is not likely harmful, 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 on an interstate going through the middle of Chicago – good God – every other car is a diesel powered semi-trailer truck,” said Michael Mark, executive director of the American Lung Association of Greater Chicago. “That exposure, over a long period of time, is detrimental to those individuals.”

Studies of  those  constantly exposed  to diesel exhaust found their risk of lung cancer increased by up to 50 percent, said Michael Thun, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society, on the organization’s Web site.

According to The American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the main one to have been linked to diesel exhaust. But it is also suspected that other cancers such as those of the larynx, pancreas, bladder and kidney may be associated with diesel exhaust.

In addition, as a major source of outdoor air pollution, diesel exhaust is believed to play a role in other health problems such as eye irritation, headaches, lung damage, asthma and other lung diseases, heart disease and possibly immune system problems.

“Just because you’re young and healthy doesn’t mean you were designed to breathe polluted air,” Mark said. “If your body was designed to inhale smoke then it would have been built differently.”

Exhaust from diesel engines is made up of both gases and soot. The gas portion is mainly comprised of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides and hydrocarbons, according to the American Cancer Society’s Web site.
Mark said diesel exhaust contains roughly 100 times more of the soot materials than ordinary gas, which makes diesel more of a concern than other emissions.

“A lot of citizens are concerned about living close to the highways, close to truck stops,” said Angela Tin, director of environmental programs for the American Lung Association of Illinois. Noting the widespread use of diesel fuel,she said:  “For years, we all blamed industry. We all said that industry was the big polluter. It can’t be us, right? But now we find out we are creating the problem for ourselves.”

Tin said an easy way for consumers to affect air pollution levels is to always be mindful of the decisions they make.

 “It’s very hard for a government agency to regulate citizens. To say ‘don’t drive to much, don’t order too much stuff, cut back on your eBay,’” Tin said. “But always be concerned – if you want all this stuff to come to you, you’re going to pay for it environmentally or with your health.”

Darwin Burkhart, manager of the clean air program at the Illinois EPA in Springfield, said several studies over the past 10 years have sought to answer the question, ‘Why are air pollution levels decreasing, while the rate of children developing asthma and other respiratory illnesses is increasing?’

“What is something that children do that adults don’t do?” Answering his own question, he said: “Sit on school buses.”
On average, schoolchildren who ride the bus spend an average of 90 minutes each weekday in transit, according to the EPA study. Those children are more susceptible to air pollution than healthy adults because their respiratory systems are still developing and they have a faster breathing rate.

 To help protect children against regular exposure to diesel exhaust, Illinois launched a clean school bus program in 2004. At that time at least 70 percent of the 18,500 school bus fleet was powered by diesel fuel.

The program uses federal funding and national grants to help school districts retrofit their bus fleets with particulate filters and oxidation catalysts to lower emissions, and non-idling equipment which keeps the engine warm.

 Now, 73 school districts throughout 33 counties in the state have completed some retrofitting on their bus fleets and 24 school districts use biodiesel.

 Even with steady improvements in certain areas, like with school bus programs, reducing the U.S.’s dependence on diesel fuel is still far away.

 “Our economy is very much married to the trucking industry, moving goods from one place to another,” Mark said. “We need to get rid of anything that pollutes the air, but you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Diesel fuel is an elephant – we can’t just turn the engine off and walk away, but we can work for a better solution.”