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Cancer Risk for Non-Smokers: Diesel Exhaust

Diesel exhaust, such as that which can be found when working on railroads, has the potential to cause cancer in individuals who never even smoked a single cigarette.

What are the Health Hazards of Diesel Exhaust?

Diesel exhaust causes lung cancer according to the world’s foremost authority on cancer causing substances, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which is part of the World Health Organization. In reaching this conclusion, IARC relied on several well conducted studies which found that smoking and non-smoking railroad workers were at increased risk of developing lung cancer from diesel exhaust. These same published studies were a part of IARC’s decision to classify diesel exhaust as a Group 1 carcinogen. IARC noted that “This series of studies of railroad workers includes some of the stronger epidemiological studies, due to the well-defined linkage between job titles and exposure to train and diesel exhaust, the availability of yearly job titles for a large number of workers, sufficient latency for the development of lung cancer and consideration of smoking behavior.”  (IARC 2012).

Diesel Exhaust and Cigarette Smoke Similarities

As noted by IARC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), diesel exhaust is a complex mixture of thousands of different chemicals.  Many of these diesel exhaust components cause lung cancer and, in fact, there is a significant overlap between the components of diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke.  Some of the shared chemicals found in both diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke include:

  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Aldehydes
  • Nitric Oxides
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Arsenic
  • Nickel
  • Benzo[a]pyrene

With regard to diesel exhaust, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has stated that, “People with some of the highest work exposures include … railroad and dock workers…” and that “Men with the heaviest and most prolonged exposures, such as railroad workers…have been found to have higher lung cancer death rates than unexposed workers.”

Improper Railroad Maintenance as a Contributing Factor to Cancer Risk

Unfortunately, some railroads did not properly maintain their locomotives and excessive levels of diesel exhaust entered the locomotive cabs occupied by conductors, brakemen and engineers. These same workers, along with car inspectors and other crafts, would breathe in diesel exhaust while working in rail yards. In addition, railroad shop workers such as machinists, electricians, sheet metal workers, pipefitters, laborers, locomotive mechanics and other workers were often exposed to diesel exhaust inside of diesel repair shops and roundhouses without adequate ventilation. Railroad workers are entitled to claim benefits for any cancer caused or contributed to by diesel exhaust exposure under two separate laws: (1) the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and (2) the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA).


The FELA allows a railroad worker to recover for occupational cancer if the railroad fails to provide a safe place to work (i.e.- failure to warn workers of diesel exhaust hazards, failure to provide respiratory protection, etc.).


The LIA allows a worker obtain benefits for cancer if a railroad fails to provide locomotives that “are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury” (49 U.S.C Section 20701).  The LIA can also be violated if the railroad fails to comply with a specific federal regulation governing locomotive diesel exhaust which states: “Products of combustion shall be released entirely outside the cab and other compartments. Exhaust stacks shall be of sufficient height or other means provided to prevent entry of products of combustion into the cab or other compartments under usual operating conditions.” (49 C.F.R. 229.43).  The LIA is an “absolute liability” law, which means that it is not necessary to show that the railroad was negligent.

If you would like to read some court decisions of past cases handled by Doran and Murphy PLLC involving diesel exhaust induced lung cancer, click here for Shepard v Grand Trunk Western, or click here for Howell v Consolidated Rail Corporation.

Missed Solution

One of the ways the railroads could have reduced diesel exhaust exposure among crews was to install air conditioning on locomotives. Air conditioning was available as an option on locomotives since the early 1970’s but many railroads did not begin to provide air-conditioned locomotives on a large scale until 25 years later. This delay meant that railroad transportation crews (engineers, conductors, brakemen) were unnecessarily exposed to diesel exhaust, thereby increasing their risk of getting lung cancer.

How Long Have the Hazards of Diesel Exhaust Been Known?

Studies linking diesel exhaust exposure to lung cancer in railroad workers go back many decades. Importantly the railroads were well aware of these health risks. Verbatim meeting minutes of an AAR meeting in 1955 evidence that a Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad claims manager warned various other railroad representatives in attendance that “among the constituents of diesel exhaust are aromatic hydrocarbons. Some aromatic hydrocarbon compounds may cause cancer.” Over 65 of the nation’s largest railroads were in attendance at this 1955 meeting where the cancer hazards of diesel exhaust were openly addressed. The health risks of diesel exhaust were then again addressed at an AAR meeting in 1965. This meeting acknowledged that the railroads were seeing increased claims from employees for lung cancer due to occupational exposures.

Contact an Attorney for Help Pursuing Damages From Negligent Railroad Companies

For the most part the railroads ignored the hazards of diesel exhaust until the 1990s and in some cases until the 2000s. Up until that time period, most railroads provided no warnings or education about the hazards of diesel exhaust. Railroad rule books and training classes were silent for decades about the fact that diesel exhaust had been linked to lung cancer all the way back to 1955. The railroads’ failure to provide a safe place to work under the FELA and their violation of the LIA make them responsible for any diesel exhaust related cancer sustained by current worker or railroad retirees.

Contact our law firm to learn how you could file a claim for compensation.

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