Health Effects of Diesel Exhaust

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Diesel fuel is widely used throughout our society. It powers the trucks that deliver products to our communities, the buses that carry us to school and work, the agricultural equipment that plants and harvests our food, and the backup generators that can provide electricity during emergencies. It is also used for many other applications. Diesel engines have historically been more versatile and cheaper to run than gasoline engines or other sources of power. Unfortunately, the exhaust from these engines contains substances that can pose a risk to human health.

In 1998, the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) completed a comprehensive health assessment of diesel exhaust. This assessment formed the basis for a decision by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to formally identify particles in diesel exhaust as a toxic air contaminant that may pose a threat to human health. The American Lung Association of California (ALAC) and its 15 local associations work to prevent lung disease and promote lung health. Since 1904, the American Lung Association has been fighting lung disease through education, community service, advocacy and research.

This fact sheet by OEHHA and ALAC provides information on health hazards associated with diesel exhaust.

What is diesel exhaust?

Diesel exhaust is produced when an engine burns diesel fuel. It is a complex mixture of thousands of gases and fine particles (commonly known as soot) that contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants. These include many known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde. It also contains other harmful pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (a component of urban smog).

How are people exposed to diesel exhaust?

Diesel exhaust particles and gases are suspended in the air, so exposure to this pollutant occurs whenever a person breathes air that contains these substances. The prevalence of diesel-powered engines makes it almost impossible to avoid exposure to diesel exhaust or its byproducts, regardless of whether you live in a rural or urban setting. However, people living and working in urban and industrial areas are more likely to be exposed to this pollutant. Those spending time on or near roads and freeways, truck loading and unloading operations, operating diesel-powered machinery or working near diesel equipment face exposure to higher levels of diesel exhaust and face higher health risks.

What are the health effects of diesel exhaust?

As we breathe, the toxic gases and small particles of diesel exhaust are drawn into the lungs. The microscopic particles in diesel exhaust are less than one-fifth the thickness of a human hair and are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, where they contribute to a range of health problems.

Diesel exhaust and many individual substances contained in it (including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and nickel) have the potential to contribute to mutations in cells that can lead to cancer. In fact, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust particles poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant evaluated by OEHHA. ARB estimates that about 70 percent of the cancer risk that the average Californian faces from breathing toxic air pollutants stems from diesel exhaust particles.

In its comprehensive assessment of diesel exhaust, OEHHA analyzed more than 30 studies of people who worked around diesel equipment, including truck drivers, railroad workers and equipment operators. The studies showed these workers were more likely to develop lung cancer than workers who were not exposed to diesel emissions. These studies provide strong evidence that long-term occupational exposure to diesel exhaust increases the risk of lung cancer. Using information from OEHHA's assessment, ARB estimates that diesel-particle levels measured in California's air in 2000 could cause 540 "excess" cancers (beyond what would occur if there were no diesel particles in the air) in a population of 1 million people over a 70-year lifetime. Other researchers and scientific organizations, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, have calculated cancer risks from diesel exhaust that are similar to those developed by OEHHA and ARB.

Exposure to diesel exhaust can have immediate health effects. Diesel exhaust can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and it can cause coughs, headaches, lightheadedness and nausea. In studies with human volunteers, diesel exhaust particles made people with allergies more susceptible to the materials to which they are allergic, such as dust and pollen. Exposure to diesel exhaust also causes inflammation in the lungs, which may aggravate chronic respiratory symptoms and increase the frequency or intensity of asthma attacks.

Diesel engines are a major source of fine-particle pollution. The elderly and people with emphysema, asthma, and chronic heart and lung disease are especially sensitive to fine-particle pollution. Numerous studies have linked elevated particle levels in the air to increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, asthma attacks and premature deaths among those suffering from respiratory problems. Because children's lungs and respiratory systems are still developing, they are also more susceptible than healthy adults to fine particles. Exposure to fine particles is associated with increased frequency of childhood illnesses and can also reduce lung function in children.

Like all fuel-burning equipment, diesel engines produce nitrogen oxides, a common air pollutant in California. Nitrogen oxides can damage lung tissue, lower the body's resistance to respiratory infection and worsen chronic lung diseases, such as asthma. They also react with other pollutants in the atmosphere to form ozone, a major component of smog.

What is being done to reduce the health risks from diesel exhaust?

Improvements to diesel fuel and diesel engines have already reduced emissions of some of the pollutants associated with diesel exhaust. However, diesel exhaust is still one of the most widespread and toxic substances in California's air.

ARB's Diesel Risk Reduction Plan, when fully implemented, will result in a 75 percent reduction in particle emissions from diesel equipment by 2010 (compared to 2000 levels), and an 85 percent reduction by 2020. The plan calls for the use of cleaner-burning diesel fuel, retrofitting of existing engines with particle-trapping filters, and the use in new diesel engines of advanced technologies that produce nearly 90 percent fewer particle emissions, as well as the use of alternative fuels.

The use of other fuels, such as natural gas, propane and electricity offer alternatives to diesel fuel. All of them produce fewer polluting emissions than current formulations of diesel fuel. As a result of ARB and local air-quality regulations, public transit agencies throughout California are using increasing numbers of passenger buses that operate with alternative fuels or retrofitted equipment.

How can I learn more?

For further information
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

1001 I Street, P.O. Box 4010, Sacramento, CA 95812-4010
(916) 324-7572

Air Resources Board
1001 I Street, Sacramento, CA 95814
(800) 363-7664

American Lung Association of California
921 11th Street, Suite 700, Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 442-4446
For your local office, call (800) LUNG-USA


Chemical Reference

Diesel Exhaust Particulate