Today, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed what we’ve long suspected: the pollution from dirty diesel engines causes cancer.
“The scientific evidence was compelling and the working group’s conclusion was unanimous: Diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans,” Christopher Portier, chairman of the IARC working group, said in a statement. “Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide.”
Today’s news places diesel exhaust in the same category of cancer risk as asbestos and arsenic. As my colleague Diane Bailey pointed out, the IARC report adds to the mountain of studies, reports, and data connecting diesel exhaust to a wide range of health impacts, including increased asthma emergencies, bronchitis, emphysema, and heart disease.
The cost of our reliance on dirty diesel fuels and engines is staggering. In the United States alone, diesel engines that power our buses, trucks, construction and farm equipment, locomotives, and ships trigger more than 50,000 premature deaths and $300 billion in health costs every year. Worldwide, the cost is many times greater, due to the much dirtier diesel fuels and engines that are typically used in the developing world.
Luckily, diesel pollution is a solvable problem, and we’ve already started tackling it here at home. Reducing sulfur levels in diesel fuel allows diesel engines to run dramatically cleaner, thanks to effective filter technologies that can only be used with ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. In the United States, this fuel became standard in 2006. New diesel engines in this country are more than 90 percent cleaner than engines that were sold just a few years ago.
All around the world, though, diesel engines are much, much dirtier than the ones that power the buses on Madison Avenue in New York, the trucks on our interstates, and the heavy machinery on our farms. Sulfur levels in countries like China, India, and Mexico are more than 30 times higher than the levels in U.S. diesel fuel—and in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, sulfur levels can be as much as 300 times higher. At these sulfur levels, diesel engines lack even the most basic emissions controls, exposing people to even dirtier, more dangerous fumes — up to 100 times more polluted than exhaust from new diesel engines.
Despite our progress, there are still millions of dirty diesel engines on American roads today. Congress passed bipartisan legislation to retrofit and replace America’s dirtiest diesels, but hasn’t committed the funding to make it happen. Worldwide, governments need to commit to phasing in cleaner fuels and using more modern diesel engine technology. Dumping dirty diesel is a move that will save hundreds of thousands of lives each year.
Peter Lehner is the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is his second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, he led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the Environmental Protection Bureau for the Attorney General of the State of New York.
This article was originally published on the NRDC Switchboard.
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