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Diesel Exhaust

What is diesel exhaust?

Diesel is a type of fuel derived from crude oil. Large engines, including those used in many trucks, buses, trains, construction and farm equipment, generators, ships, and in some cars, run on diesel fuel.

The exhaust from diesel engines is made up of 2 main parts: gases and soot. Each of these, in turn, is made up of many different substances.

  • The gas portion of diesel exhaust is mostly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and hydrocarbons, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • The soot (particulate) portion of diesel exhaust is made up of particles such as carbon, organic materials (including PAHs), and traces of metallic compounds.

Both the gases and the soot of diesel exhaust contain PAHs.

Exposure to diesel exhaust is widespread in the modern world. Exhaust from diesel engines brings a complex mixture of soot and gases to roadways, cities, farms, and other places. Health concerns about diesel exhaust relate not only to cancer, but also to other health problems such as lung and heart diseases.

How are people exposed to diesel exhaust?

People are exposed to diesel exhaust mainly by breathing in the soot and gases, which then enter the lungs. The amount of diesel exhaust people are exposed to varies greatly. Measuring these exposures is not easy because diesel exhaust is chemically complex and many parts of it are also found in a lot of other sources. This has been, and remains, a major challenge when trying to study the health effects of diesel exhaust.

People may be exposed to diesel exhaust at work, around the home, or while traveling.

At work

People with the some of highest exposures at work include truck drivers, toll booth workers, miners, forklift drivers and other heavy machinery operators, railroad and dock workers, and garage workers and mechanics. Some farm workers may also spend a lot of time around diesel exhaust.

Where you live and play

People can also be exposed to diesel exhaust in areas where they live and play, although this is typically at lower levels than in the workplace. Exposures are highest where diesel traffic is heaviest, such as along major highways and in cities.

While traveling

Exposure to diesel exhaust may be higher when in a vehicle, especially when traveling on roads with heavier truck or bus traffic. Commuting to and from work is a potential source of diesel exhaust exposure for many people. One particular area of concern is children’s exposures to diesel exhaust and other pollutants while riding in school buses, as the buses themselves typically run on diesel fuel.

Does diesel exhaust cause cancer?

Researchers use 2 main types of studies to try to determine if a substance or exposure causes cancer. (A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.)

In studies done in the lab, animals are exposed to a substance (often in very large doses) to see if it causes tumors or other health problems. Researchers may also expose normal cells in a lab dish to the substance to see if it causes the types of changes that are seen in cancer cells. But it’s not always clear if the results from these types of studies will apply to humans.

Another type of study looks at cancer rates in different groups of people. Such a study might compare the cancer rate in a group exposed to a substance versus either the cancer rate in a group not exposed to it, or the cancer rate in the general population. But studies in people can sometimes be hard to interpret, because there may be other factors affecting the results that are hard to account for.

In most cases neither type of study provides definitive evidence on its own, so researchers usually look at both lab-based and human studies if they are available.

Studying a substance like diesel exhaust can be even more complicated because it is actually a mixture of many chemicals. Therefore, researchers have to look at studies of the parts of diesel exhaust, such as soot and PAHs, as well as studies of diesel exhaust itself.

On top of this, changes in diesel technology in recent decades have resulted in lower levels of soot (particles) in diesel exhaust. Studying diesel exhaust exposure from decades ago may not be the same as studying current exposures.

Studies done in the lab

In studies of cells done in lab dishes, diesel exhaust (as soot or chemical extracts) can cause changes in the cells’ DNA. These types of changes are usually needed for cancer to develop, although not all substances that cause DNA changes also cause cancer.

Several studies have found that long-term, heavy exposure to diesel exhaust can cause lung cancer in lab animals such as rats.

Studies in people

It is not easy to study the possible health effects of diesel exhaust in people. First, it is often very hard to correctly define and measure the level of exposure. It can also be hard to account for the other cancer risk factors that people exposed to diesel exhaust might have, such as smoking.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the major cancer thought to be linked to diesel exhaust. Several studies of workers exposed to diesel exhaust have shown small but significant increases in risk of lung cancer. Men with the heaviest and most prolonged exposures, such as railroad workers, heavy equipment operators, miners, and truck drivers, have been found to have higher lung cancer death rates than unexposed workers. Although most studies have found a link between diesel exhaust exposure and lung cancer, some have not. Still, based on the number of people exposed at work, diesel exhaust may pose a substantial health risk.

The possible link between lung cancer and exposure to diesel exhaust outside of the workplace has not been studied extensively.

Other cancers

Several studies have looked for possible links between diesel exhaust and other cancers, including cancers of the larynx (voice box), esophagus, stomach, and bladder. Studies have also looked for links to blood system cancers such as lymphomas and leukemias (including childhood leukemia). While some studies have found possible links, others have not. More research is needed to show if diesel exhaust exposure is linked to any of these other cancers.

What expert agencies say

Several national and international agencies study substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory, animal, and human research studies.

Some of these expert agencies have classified diesel exhaust as to whether it can cause cancer, based largely on the possible link to lung cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. IARC classifies diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on sufficient evidence that it is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, as well as limited evidence linking it to an increased risk of bladder cancer.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several different US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP has classified exposure to diesel exhaust particulates as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” based on limited evidence from studies in humans and supporting evidence from lab studies.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an electronic database that contains information on human health effects from exposure to various substances in the environment. The EPA classifies diesel exhaust as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is part of the CDC that studies exposures in the workplace. NIOSH has determined that diesel exhaust is a “potential occupational carcinogen.”

(For more information on the classification systems used by these agencies, see our document, Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.)

Does diesel exhaust cause any other health problems?

Diesel exhaust is a major part of outdoor air pollution. Diesel exhaust is believed to play a role in other health problems, such as eye irritation, headache, asthma and other lung diseases, heart disease, and possibly immune system problems.

Can I reduce my exposure to diesel exhaust?

Diesel exhaust can cause several health problems and can most likely increase the risk of lung cancer (and possibly other cancers), so it makes sense to lower your exposure to it whenever possible. However, since most people’s exposure comes from exhaust near highways and other roads, government regulations may be more effective in limiting exposure than individual choices.

At work

If you are exposed to diesel exhaust at work, there are ways to reduce or prevent exposures. Some of these measures can also help protect you from other chemical exposures that are likely to happen in the workplace.

If you work in or around vehicles that run on diesel fuel, you might be able to limit the amount of time you spend near engines while they are running. Limiting the time spent near idling engines may help lower your exposure to fumes.

Talk with your employer to be sure that you are protected adequately. Personal protective equipment, such as respirators, may be a key part of a workplace protective program. If needed, engineering changes, such as ventilating the exhaust away from where you breathe, can also be important.

For more information on preventing or reducing workplace exposures at your job, consult your company’s safety and health manager. If needed, you can get additional assistance from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety.

Where you live and play

If you are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes in your environment, you can take some of the same precautions. For example, try to avoid or limit spending time near large sources of diesel exhaust, such as near trucks and buses. Commuting to and from work is a potential source of diesel exhaust exposure for many people, whether using a car or some type of public transportation. For some people, working from home (telecommuting or teleworking) may be an option to lower their exposure, as well as to save money on commuting expenses.

On a governmental level, regulations such as the Clean Air Act and programs such as the EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign are designed to reduce diesel emissions from trucks and other large engines, lowering public exposure to diesel exhaust.

Another important program is Clean School Bus USA. Children can be exposed to diesel exhaust during school bus travel or when standing near running school buses outside of school. Clean School Bus USA brings together partners from business, education, transportation, and public-health organizations to reduce children’s exposure to bus-related air pollutants by aiming to:

  • Reduce unnecessary school bus idling
  • Replace older buses with newer, less-polluting buses
  • Upgrade existing buses with technologies to reduce their emissions

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

We have some related information that may also be helpful to you. These materials may be ordered from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345.

Does This Cause Cancer?

Known and Probable Human Carcinogens

National organizations and Web sites

In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include*:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Web site: www.epa.gov
Clean School Bus USA: www.epa.gov/cleanschoolbus
National Clean Diesel Campaign: www.epa.gov/otaq/diesel/index.htm

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER)
Web site: www.cancer.gov

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Toll-free number: 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO)
Web site: www.cdc.gov/niosh

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
Toll-free number: 1-800-321-6742 (1-800-321-OSHA)
Web site: www.osha.gov
Safety and health topics: Diesel exhaust: www.osha.gov/SLTC/dieselexhaust/index.html

*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.

No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.


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Last Medical Review: 02/19/2013
Last Revised: 02/19/2013