Diesel exhaust causes cancer according to the WHO

Diesel exhaust causes cancer, declared the World Health Organization’s cancer agency earlier this week.

The new classification was released by an expert panel organized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer arm of the World Health Organization. In 1989, the agency labeled diesel exhaust a “probable” carcinogen. Reclassifying it as carcinogenic puts it into the same category as other known hazards such as tabacco smoke, asbestos and ultraviolet radiation.

While the risk of getting cancer from diesel fumes is small, so many people breathe in the fumes in some way that the science panel said raising the status of diesel exhaust to carcinogen from “probable carcinogen” was an important shift, making diesel emissions as important a public health threat as secondhand smoke.

Fumes from diesel engines affect groups including pedestrians on the street, school children who ride in diesel school buses, commuters who share highways with heavy truck traffic, ship passengers and crew, port workers and fence line communities, railroad workers, truck drivers, mechanics, miners and people operating heavy machinery.

The U.S. government, however, still classifies diesel exhaust as a likely carcinogen, and diesel engine makers and car company officials are quick to say new diesel engines emissions are far cleaner, pointing out emissions from new and retrofitted trucks and buses have been slashed by more than 95 percent for nitrogen oxides, particulate and sulfur emissions.  However further studies should be done to assess any potential dangers even these lower levels of emissions might have on the public.

At this point, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not received any requests to reevaluate whether diesel definitely causes cancer but their assessments tend to be in line with those made by IARC.

In 2001, the Texas legislature created the Texas Emissions Reduction Program (TERP) to reduce emissions from on and off road diesel engines. In 2007, that program was expanded to help school districts retrofit their school bus fleets. So while there have been efforts to reduce diesel emissions in the state, there are many sources of diesel emissions that are still impacting Texas communities that need to be addressed.

TERP legislation is up for review this upcoming legislative session. This new declaration by the World Health Organization makes it imperative that TERP not only be reauthorized, but be expanded to include more classes of diesel engines.