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What's the issue with diesel fumes?

Breathing in high quantities of diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEEs) can cause irritation in the respiratory tract within a few minutes of exposure, but prolonged exposure over many years may be more harmful.

The health effects will depend on:

  • the type and quality of diesel fuel being used (for example, whether it’s low sulphur)
  • the type and age of engine being used
  • where and how it’s used and maintained – blue or black smoke can indicate a problem with the engine, which could
  • mean that more toxic fumes are being produced
  • the speed and workload demand on the engine
  • the state of engine tuning
  • the fuel pump setting
  • the temperature of the engine
  • the type of oil used
  • whether a combination of different diesel-powered engines is contributing to overall exposure
  • any emission control systems.

At the very least, short-term, high-level exposures to DEEEs can irritate the:

  • eyes
  • throat
  • nose
  • respiratory tract
  • lungs.

It can also cause:

  • lung irritation
  • allergic reactions (causing asthma)
  • worsening of asthma
  • dizziness, headaches and nausea.

Continuous exposure to DEEEs can cause chronic respiratory ill health, with symptoms including coughing and feeling breathless.

However, if people are exposed to DEEEs regularly and over a long period, there is an increased risk of lung cancer.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the biggest risk associated with DEEEs. An estimated 14,728 deaths between 2000 and 2016 were due to occupational exposure to DEEEs, according to the World Health Organization.

It is agreed that the risk is linked with the particulate emissions in diesel fumes – the soot, rather than the gases or vapours. The particulates are easily inhaled and drawn deep into the lungs. DEEE exposure is now often measured by the elemental carbon concentrations in the air inhaled by workers.

Even if people lead a healthy life, don’t smoke and don’t have a strong history of cancer in the family, DEEEs can still cause lung cancer, depending on the number of airborne particulates the worker is exposed to.

Other health concerns from DEEE exposure

DEEE exposure can also cause or be linked to other health conditions, such as:

  • bladder cancer (and potentially other cancers such as oesophagus, larynx, pancreas and stomach)
  • increased risk of heart and lung disease
  • worsening of asthma and allergies.

While people are more likely to be diagnosed with a cancer caused by long-term exposure to DEEEs in later life, many workers will still incur respiratory symptoms that can seriously affect quality of life at a much younger age.

Which industries are affected by DEEEs? 

Anyone working with or around diesel-powered equipment or vehicles can be affected by DEEE exposure.

DEEEs from vehicles such as forklifts, lorries, buses, trains and tractors (particularly in enclosed spaces such as garages, underground car parks, vehicle test areas or workshops) can cause a problem. People working with fixed power sources such as compressors, generators or power plants (sectors such as tunnelling, mining or construction) could also be at risk.

Exposure to DEEEs can occur in any industry that involves diesel-powered equipment. Industries include:

  • agriculture
  • construction
  • energy extraction
  • fire and rescue services
  • mining
  • rail
  • shipping
  • transport and logistics
  • tunnelling
  • vehicle repair
  • warehousing.

Which job roles are exposed to DEEEs?

People who work in areas where exhaust levels are high or can accumulate may be at risk.

Job roles that can often be exposed to DEEEs include:

  • airline ground workers
  • bridge and tunnel workers
  • bus, lorry and taxi drivers
  • car, lorry and bus service and repair workers
  • construction workers
  • custom and border control officers
  • depot and warehouse workers
  • emergency service workers (police and traffic officers, firefighters and paramedics)
  • farmworkers
  • heavy equipment operators
  • loading dock and dockside ferry workers
  • maritime workers
  • material handling operators
  • miners
  • oil and gas workers
  • railway and subway workers
  • refuse collection workers
  • tollbooth and traffic management workers
  • tunnel construction workers
  • landscapers.