You probably already know that breathing air polluted by diesel exhaust is bad for your lungs, but what exactly does breathing in diesel fumes do to your body? Research in the United Kingdom recently uncovered the exact mechanism by which diesel affects your lungs. The study looked at the direct relationship of diesel exhaust particles and their impact on airway sensory nerves.

Diesel particles are very small, less than 20 nanometers in diameter (for perspective, one nanometer is one billionth of a meter). In fact, several thousand of these particles could fit inside the period at the end of this sentence. Because these particles are so tiny, they are invisible to the naked human eye, and are able to penetrate deep into your lungs. According to the study, when these particles enter your lungs they trigger sensory nerves which cause you to cough. The study found that the way diesel exhaust specifically activated sensory nerves, identifies the link between exposure to diesel exhaust and exacerbation of respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis.

Ryan Robinson, the PhD student at the National Heart and Lung Institute who conducted this research, claims, “[A]n imbalance between disturbances in the normal oxidative state of cells and the system’s ability to repair the resulting damage, is linked to many diseases.” Meaning there is a link between lung cells that are damaged by exposure to diesel exhaust and unable to repair themselves, and respiratory health problems. According to the Clean Air Task Force, particulate pollution from diesel shortens the lives of 21,000 people per year due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, including about 3,000 from lung cancer.

So how does this affect you? By 1959, most railroads in the US had converted to diesel powered engines. This means many railroaders who worked around engines after this time were exposed to diesel exhaust on the job. Various studies that have focused specifically on railroad workers in the U.S. have found thatworkers who operated trains were at an increased risk of lung cancer due to their diesel exposure. The risk of lung cancer mortality was specifically elevated in jobs associated with work on trains powered by diesel locomotives. Another study found the risk of lung cancer was greatest in workers hired after 1945, who were exposed to diesel particles as diesel locomotives were being introduced. After adjusting for intensity of exposure, the study concluded that railroad workers hired after 1945 with any level of exposure to diesel were almost twice as likely to develop lung cancer as those with no exposure at all.

The experienced attorneys at Doran & Murphy have represented numerous railroad workers under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). If you believe you were exposed to diesel exhaust or other harmful chemicals during your work for the railroad and have been diagnosed with cancer, contact us to discuss your legal rights under the FELA.