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Air Quality

Published on June 12th, 2012 | by NRDC


Breaking News: Diesel Exhaust Does Cause Cancer

June 12th, 2012 by  


nrdc switchboardby Peter Lehner of the NRDC

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.

Image: diesel exhaust fumes via Paul Marcus / Shutterstock.com

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  • Eric

    Breaking news !!!!
    Why is it everyone is getting Cancer ?
    Simple : radiation causes cancer. Go green
    Go Cancer. We have more cancer now then ever before. They must think we’re stupid.
    Global warming not a chance. Why do these idiot scientist try to tell us what the global
    Temperature should be. They’re not god !
    Tell global warming B S to the people of the East Coast. Than we have the California Scum bag law makers telling us we’re in a drought. Really ? Why are we still building homes that use 1000’s of gallons of water
    Monthly. My point is don’t be fooled. Gov control is taking over. Oh and Electric and
    Hybrid cars cause cancer. Next time you drive one use a E m f reader. You’ll be surprised. God is the only one to save this great nation. Not Stupid humans.

  • Eric

    Electric motors are gross polluters of EMF
    Radiation. Electric cars cause cancer. Go green ? No thanks!

  • Pingback: Cool Green Morning: Wednesday, June 13 | Cool Green Science: The Conservation Blog of The Nature Conservancy()

  • Edward Kerr

    Just another reason why we should be ramping up Algal Oil as it’s oil is a Diesel fuel (it’s a ‘drop in’ with minor processing)  that has no sulfur and burns as clean as possible. It my not be perfect (whatever that might be) but until we can come up with a better solution we will need to have fuel that diesel engines can utilize. If we can’t rapidly upgrade to cleaner engines then cleaner fuel makes some sense.

    • Matt

      Yes, they can be made much cleaner. And then you get thing like. China where the cost of fuel is fix, so the China fuel company (to make quotas) makes the desiel with the high sulfur. Which gums up the newer desiel engines.

      But don’t have to go there. Tell me you haven’t been behind a bus or truck here in the US and seen the above picture. Yes, it is just the truck not running right. But it is still dumping into the air. See similar behind some cars. Yes they “just” need to be fix. But who want to “waste” time or money doing that.

  • AlgorithmicAnalyst

    Diesel engines can be made to run very cleanly. There needs to be a worldwide effort to make use of clean diesel engines mandatory.

  • rkt9

    Some good photoshop on the exhaust. LOL

     Yes, newer engines are much cleaner, and more expensive, fewer transportation companies can afford them, resulting in a good supply of older ones in our cities.

     Burning toxic liquids from deep beneath the surface of our environment was never a good idea.  It seems ignorant to spend resources to figure out how to burn this toxin cleaner, rather than figure out how not to use it at all, and leave it where it belongs, buried deep beneath us.  .

    • I hope it’s not a photoshop.  Things are bad enough as it is, no need to make them look worse.  It is possible for black soot to come out like that, but generally only if u r doing it wrong.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s most likely unburned fuel.  Someone has stepped on the accelerator too hard and the injectors are sending in fuel faster than it can be combusted.  

  • Matt

    So how many billions of gal of diesel does the US use in a year. If N billion, then the “health tax” of using diesel need to be at least $300/N dollars per gallon. Of course it should more likely be 1.5-3 time that to pay the health cost and to help drive the market to a healthier options.  Oh an I forgot to include the cost of 50k deaths.

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