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Air Quality

Truckers’ Health & the Rise of Zero-Emission Trucks

Truck drivers face a hidden health crisis due to diesel exhaust emissions. Zero-emission trucks can safeguard drivers’ well-being while bringing positive changes to the industry and the planet.

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The trucking industry is the backbone of the global economy, as companies deliver products across vast distances for our convenience. In 2021, 72 percent of goods in America were shipped by trucks, highlighting the economic importance of the trucking industry and its drivers. However, the diesel trucks that power this industry come at a significant cost, emitting harmful emissions that pose serious threats to public health and the environment. Truck drivers bear the brunt of this pollution since they encounter harmful diesel exhaust fumes as a regular part of their daily work routine. Transitioning to zero-emission trucks not only has the potential to improve truck drivers’ health but also offers a path toward a more sustainable future.

Harmful effects of diesel emissions

Diesel emissions release harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) into the atmosphere. NOx belongs to a group of reactive gases produced during activities such as fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes. PM2.5, commonly known as soot, is another harmful component found in diesel exhaust and is associated with respiratory issues. PM2.5 forms a complex aerosol system primarily associated with black smoke from diesel engines, and its ultrafine size of less than 2.5 microns allows it to easily enter the lungs, causing respiratory issues. Regular exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to various respiratory diseases, making it a significant concern for truck drivers, who are frequently exposed to diesel exhaust. PM2.5 can also irritate the nose, throat, lungs, and eyes, leading to cardiovascular illness and premature death. Despite only representing 6 percent of the on-road fleet, heavy-duty trucks generated 59 percent of ozone- and particle-forming NOx emissions, 55 percent of particle pollution, and 26 percent of transportation-based greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to research by the American Lung Association.

In-cabin pollution: An overlooked threat

In-cabin pollution poses one of the most significant daily exposures to air pollutants for drivers. Over time, truck cabins can accumulate unhealthy levels of PM2.5 and NOx emissions. The cabin serves as a hotbox for pollutants, leading to drivers inhaling these fumes daily. In-cabin pollution can have detrimental effects on drivers who spend long hours in their trucks, leading to respiratory issues, such as asthma and respiratory infections, while also contributing to cardiovascular problems. According to the American Cancer Society, workers with the heaviest and most prolonged exposures to diesel emissions—such as railroad workers, heavy-equipment operators, miners, and truck drivers—have been found to have higher lung cancer death rates than unexposed workers.

Who is at risk and what are the impacts on health?

There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association. Due to the nature of their jobs—long hours, little rest, lack of healthy food options—truck drivers are more at risk for asthma, heart disease, and obesity. This, paired with the fact that the average age of a truck driver is 46 years old, means that in-cabin diesel emissions directly increase the risk of severe, negative health outcomes. Medical research indicates that truck drivers regularly exposed to diesel exhaust face an elevated risk of lung cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies diesel exhaust as a Group 1 human carcinogen, meaning there is sufficient evidence linking it to an increased risk of lung cancer. Exposure to diesel particulate matter (DPM) can also lead to respiratory symptoms, decreased lung function, and hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases, including asthma.

A 2018 study on occupational health disparities among long-haul truck drivers in the United States revealed significant differences in health risks compared to other sample groups. The research highlights that the long-haul truck driver group had higher mean scores for both cardiovascular disease and metabolic disease risk. Additionally, truck drivers exhibited elevated levels of body mass index (BMI) and high blood pressure. Specifically, 43.9 percent of truck drivers had a BMI significantly above the mean of the study’s sample, and this trend was consistent. Additionally, 30 percent of truckers observed in the study had higher systolic blood pressure, and 50 percent had elevated diastolic blood pressure. These findings underscore the health disparities and increased risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases within the truck driver occupation.

Furthermore, truck drivers are less likely to have health insurance coverage compared to other workers (with 15 percent being uninsured versus 10 percent for all workers), which adds to their vulnerability. The health disparities and elevated health risks observed among long-haul truck drivers without health insurance can result in delayed treatment, financial hardships, decreased job performance, and potential long-term health complications.

The benefits of embracing zero-emission trucks

While some truck drivers may have concerns about regulations that seek to transition fleets toward zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), advocating for ZEV standards can bring numerous benefits, particularly in improving health outcomes and work environments. Transitioning to zero-emission trucks offers the following advantages:

  1. Public health: The transition to zero-emission trucks will secure a wide array of public health benefits, including preventing 66,800 premature deaths, 8.5 million lost workdays, and 1.75 million asthma attacks over the next 30 years.
  2. Reduced air pollution: ZEVs significantly decrease NOx and PM2.5 emissions, improving air quality and reducing the risk of respiratory diseases. Studies have shown that communities with high exposure to DPM have a greater risk of asthma.
  3. Lower noise levels: Zero-emission trucks produce less noise pollution, leading to improved mental well-being and concentration while reducing the health issues associated with excessive noise exposure. Noise pollution can lead to drivers suffering from hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, high blood pressure, and anxiety. A study conducted in 2015 found that traffic noise was associated with cardiovascular defects in all adults and the elderly, and revealed that long-term exposure to noise from road traffic can increase the risk of death.
  4. Lower maintenance costs: Zero-emission trucks generally have lower maintenance costs than their diesel counterparts. Electric trucks have a simpler power train with fewer moving parts and don’t require various fluids like engine oil, coolant, or transmission fluid, which eliminates the need for fluid changes and reduces the likelihood of leaks. Furthermore, electric trucks often feature regenerative braking, which helps reduce wear and tear, extending a vehicle’s life span and reducing brake system maintenance needs. Finally, electric trucks often utilize advanced sensors and data analytics to monitor the conditions of components, which allows for proactive maintenance by identifying issues before they become critical, reducing downtime and maintenance costs. These factors contribute to zero-emission trucks having lower total cost of ownership compared to their diesel counterparts, but more must be done to bring up-front costs down.
  5. Improved work environment: Many zero-emission trucks are designed with driver comfort in mind. They can feature ergonomic seating, advanced climate control systems, and enhanced noise insulation. These features contribute to a more comfortable and enjoyable driving experience, reducing fatigue and promoting driver well-being. Electric trucks typically have smoother acceleration, thereby providing a more stable driving experience and reducing the physical strain on drivers’ bodies from the excessive vibrations caused by traditional diesel trucks. Finally, zero-emission trucks’ quiet operation and improved in-cabin air quality create a conductive environment for restful sleep during rest breaks or overnight stops. Improved sleep quality leads to more alert and focused drivers, enhancing safety on the road.


Zero-emission trucks hold immense potential for reducing harmful emissions and improving the health and well-being of millions of people. One largely overlooked group of beneficiaries is truck drivers. Advocating for ZEV standards is crucial to accelerate the transition to cleaner transportation, ensuring a healthier environment for truck drivers and the communities they serve. By embracing zero-emission trucks, the trucking industry and truck drivers can build a healthier and more comfortable work environment, ultimately boosting job satisfaction, productivity, and overall well-being.

By Guillermo Ortiz, This blog was written by Noelia Agramont, NRDC 2023 summer intern. Support for this internship program is provided by the U.C. Merced Division of Equity, Justice, and Inclusive Excellence.

 Courtesy of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

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