Experts at the World Health Organization aren’t mincing words: the exhaust from diesel engines can cause lung cancer, and it’s worse than secondhand smoke.
The WHO has been studying the effects of diesel fumes for a while, but this is the first time diesel has been elevated to the status of a known carcinogen. With this finding, announced at a scientific conference in France, diesel fumes become elevated to the same unenviable position as asbestos, smoking, ultraviolet radiation, and copious amounts of alcohol as cancer-causing substances.
Asbestos, famously, has been banned by most countries—while almost everybody is aware, or at least has heard, of the dangers of smoking.
The WHO also based its judgement on precedence. Scientists at the National Cancer Institute studied 50 years of exposure to diesel fumes by 12,000 miners—those who were heavily exposed to diesel fumes for years had seven times the normal lung cancer risk of nonsmokers. The study showed that the more exposure to diesel fumes on the job, the greater risk of cancer: far greater than cigarette smoking, at the very least.
Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Health have linked diesel and cancer as a potential carcinogen, but never concretely as the WHO have found. Likewise, the American Cancer Society also agrees with the decision.
“I don’t think it’s bad to have a diesel car,” said Dr. Otis W. Brawley, the Cancer Society’s director. “I don’t think it’s good to breathe its exhaust. I’m not concerned about people who walk past a diesel vehicle, I’m a little concerned about people like toll collectors, and I’m very concerned about people like miners, who work where exhaust is concentrated.”
Diesel fumes are a staple in growing third-world countries, where their soot and acrid smell belch from generators, farm equipment and long-haul trucks. In America, industries like mining regulate how long workers can be exposed to trucks and other equipment. Modern diesels that are used in America pass strict environmental regulations, and produce far less sulfur than in years past.
In that vein, what does the diesel industry have to say about this? The Diesel Technology Forum toted the relative cleaniness of modern diesels, which burn low-sulfur fuel and produce 98 percent less soot and particulates than old diesel technology. Mercedes-Benz, for example, claims that its Bluetec diesels produce “30 percent lower greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline.” Volkswagen makes a similar claim about its TDI diesels.
Ultra-low sulfur fuel has been a requirement in America since 2006. And some more good news for those who ply our highways: those belching trucks pumping black soot into the air? About a quarter of them were built after 2006, and fleet trucks are replaced every 12 to 15 years, estimates the government.
And with this status, scientists hope, there will be pressure on world governments to declare diesel exhaust an official carcinogen, which will lead to increased regulation and scrutiny—not necessarily an outright banning of diesel cars, but mandating the use of emissions equipment, incentives for cleaner trucks, and funding research into cleaner technology. We’ve seen many of these elements in green car technology, which seems to just mean electric vehicles—but with diesel’s newfound status, the definition of “green technology” will change as well.
Source: New York Times