Does Diesel Cause Cancer?
The question about whether certain types of cancer can be caused by diesel or to be more precise, the emissions caused by diesel, has been a topic of discussion for decades. Most recently a panel of experts working under the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that exhaust fumes from diesel engines are definitely a cause of cancer. Their conclusions were that fumes from the exhausts caused lung cancer and could also cause tumours in the bladder.
The findings of the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), a part of the World Health Organisation, were based on research using high-risk workers such as railway workers, truck drivers and miners.
Previously they had labelled exhausts from diesel engines as probably carcinogenic to humans, but it has now changed to a definite cause of cancer. It has always been unclear as to how carcinogens are ranked in terms of their risk to humans but diesel exhausts are now within the same group that lists plutonium, alcohol and sunlight as causes of cancer.
It should be noted that although news reports are stating that diesel exhausts are the cause of cancer, the actual report by the IARC is that their definition of “cause” of cancer is “sufficient evidence”. This does not mean that everyone who was ever around a diesel engine will get lung cancer or that it is the cause if they have developed it.
Over the past two decades the concerns about the environment has led to regulatory changes across the world in North America, Europe and many other countries. This has caused a change to the emissions allowed by diesel and gasoline engines.
Also with technology and regulation being tightly connected, there has been a marked improvement in the efficiency of the engines and the levels of sulphur content. The study of whether these changes have made any effect on the health of high-risk workers is needed for any conclusive evidence to be brought to light.
The Chairman of the IARC working Group, Dr Christopher Portier, has however still stated that: "The scientific evidence was compelling and the Working Group's conclusion was unanimous, diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans. Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide."
The UK Department of Health has seen and responded positively to the report stating that they are taking it into account with their plans to improve public health.
While cancer research UK has stressed that employers as well as workers should take appropriate action to minimise the exposure to diesel fumes in the workplace. Most employers and workers who come into contact with diesel exhausts regularly already have an idea of the risks that any type of fumes carries.
This report probably comes as no surprise to these workers and employers. Even with this new information being taken into account, according to the director of cancer information, Dr Lesley Walker, diesel fumes being the overall source of lung cancers is "likely to be a fraction of those caused by smoking tobacco".
Despite Dr Walker’s opinion, it should be obvious that proper care should be taken when dealing with exhaust fumes from diesel engines.
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