Hazards of Diesel Exhaust
What do the Medical Studies Say?
Railroads began transitioning from steam to diesel powered locomotives in the late 1940s and 1950s. With this transition, railroad workers faced an increased risk of developing lung cancer and other illnesses – such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – from significant exposure to diesel exhaust (Laden et al., 2006). A group of Harvard researchers led by Dr. Eric Garshick and Dr. Jaime Hart conducted several studies from 1987 to 2009 which concluded that prolonged exposure to diesel fumes increases the risk of lung cancer and COPD mortality in railroad workers. In 1988, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a Current Intelligence Bulletin (CIB) entitled Carcinogenic Effects of Exposure to Diesel Exhaust. The CIB cited research from Garshick and other studies to conclude that occupational exposure to diesel engine emissions could cause lung cancer and stated: “The consistency of these toxicologic and epidemiologic findings suggests that a potential occupational carcinogenic hazard exists in human exposure to diesel exhaust.” NIOSH recommended that “users of diesel-powered equipment disseminate this current information to their workers.” In 2012 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a press release, Diesel Engine Exhaust Carcinogenic, which stated that “The Working Group found that diesel exhaust is a cause of lung cancer (sufficient evidence) and also noted a positive association (limited evidence) with an increased risk of bladder cancer,” classifying diesel exhaust as a group one carcinogen (the substance is a known cause of cancer in humans).
What did the Railroads Know About the Hazards?
Going back for over 100 years, the nation’s railroads have been members of an industry trade organization known as the Association of American Railroads (formerly the American Railway Association). This organization would meet regularly to discuss issues of importance to the nation’s railroads. Passages in this trade organization’s meeting minutes demonstrated that railroad officials knew that diesel exhaust was dangerous to employees as far back as the 1950s:
1955 General Claims Division American Railway Association meeting minutes – “Recently there has arisen the assertion of another serious medical consequence of inhaling diesel exhaust. The National Cancer Institute, in conjunction with the Railroad Retirement Board and several of the railroad brotherhoods, has initiated a survey to explore the possibility of linking lung cancer to the inhalation of diesel exhaust…Among the constituents of diesel exhaust are aromatic hydrocarbons. Some aromatic hydrocarbon compounds may cause cancer.”
1965 American Railway Association Medical Section meeting minutes – “At present the railroad industry is also becoming implicated as possibly being a factor in lung cancer because of diesel exhaust fumes…We know that constant exposure to noxious fumes and lung irritants cause pulmonary irritation and pulmonary disease.”
Despite the awareness of these hazards, most railroads did not take any action in response. Specifically, the railroad industry failed to significantly reduce diesel exhaust emissions and educate their employees on the hazards of exposure to harmful fumes. As a result, railroad workers are at an increased risk of developing cancer and COPD. If you are a railroad worker who has been diagnosed with pulmonary disease or cancer from occupational exposure to diesel exhaust, contact an attorney to discuss your legal rights.
Garshick, E., Schenker, M. B., Muñoz, A., Segal, M., Smith, T. J., Wosksie, S. R., Hammond, S. K., Speizer, F. E. (1987). A case-control study of lung cancer and diesel exhaust exposure in railroad workers. The American Review of Respiratory Disease, 135, 1242-1248.
Garshick, E., Schenker, M. B., Muñoz, A., Segal, M., Smith, T. J., Wosksie, S. R., Hammond, S. K., Speizer, F. E. (1988). A retrospective cohort study of lung cancer and diesel exhaust exposure in railroad workers. The American Review of Respiratory Disease, 137, 820-825.
Garshick, E., Laden, F., Hart, J. E., Rosner, B., Smith, T. J., Dockery, D. W., Speizer, F. E. (2004). Lung cancer in railroad workers exposed to diesel exhaust. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112, 1539-1543.
Garshick, E., Laden, F., Hart, J. E., Smith, T. J., Rosner, B. (2006). Smoking imputation and lung cancer in railroad workers exposed to diesel exhaust. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 49(9), 709-718.
Hart, J. E., Laden, F., Schenker, M. B., Garshick, E. (2006). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mortality in diesel-exposed railroad workers. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(7), 1013-1017.
Hart, J. E., Laden, F., Eisen, E. A., Smith, T. J., Garshick, E. (2009). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease mortality in railroad workers. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 66, 221-226.
International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2012). IARC: Diesel Engine Exhaust Carcinogenic (World Health Organization Press Release No. 213). https://www.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr213_E.pdf
Laden, F., Hart, J. E., Eschenroeder, A., Smith, T. J., Garshick, E. (2006). Historical estimation of diesel exhaust exposure in a cohort study of U.S. railroad workers and lung cancer. Cancer Causes Control, 17(7), 911-919.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (1988). Carcinogenic Effects of Exposure to Diesel Exhaust (DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 88-116). https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/88-116/default.html