By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"More than 20 years ago, numerous researchers confirmed and reconfirmed that diesel fumes could cause lung cancer in laboratory animals," according to a December 2004 issue of Rachel's Environment & Health News.
The New York Times reported on December 23, 1981, that the National Academy of Sciences acknowledged that diesel soot is known to contain suspected cancer-causing substances. But the academy said that "no convincing epidemiological evidence exists" that there is "a connection between diesel fumes and human cancer."
Four years later, in the spring of 1985, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a scientific report about the dangers of diesel fumes in New York. "Diesel emissions are probably the single most important air-quality threat in New York City today," said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer for the environmental group and an author of the report. "But city, state, and federal agencies have not yet mounted a broad-based counterattack."
The New York Times reported at the time that a spokesperson for the New York State Environmental Conservation Department acknowledged that diesel fumes cause lung cancer in humans but said the state was "not yet sure" how big the problem was. The state had no plan for dealing with diesel, the spokesperson said, because "we have not identified the extent of the problem."
Three years later, a federal report confirmed that exposure to diesel fumes "causes lung cancer in humans."
By May 1995, however, the Times was reporting that researchers were beginning to doubt evidence that diesel fumes, though bad for people with asthma, chronic bronchitis, and cystic fibrosis, were carcinogenic. Nothing has ever been done about diesel pollution because the government has been up against the political power of the motor vehicle industry.
But it's not just industrial might that's involved in the case of diesel fumes. It's the political fix known as "risk assessment," under which you can balance the benefits against the losses and make decisions based on what's good for most peoplenot for all the people. And unless you can fix absolutes, which is difficult, there really is no seeming reason to do anything but keep on keeping on.