Out of Breath: The Dangers of Diesel Fumes


Among the most thoroughly documented environmental health dangers is breathing diesel fumes. An excellent article in the Garden State EnviroNews, on which the following item is based, follows the trail of just how the government rationalized doing barely anything about this hazard for more than 20 years.

A recent report by the Clean Air Task Force estimates that 21,000 people are killed each year in the U.S. by those particular bad fumes. In addition, diesel fumes cause 27,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 410,000 asthma attacks in American adults annually, plus 12,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 15,000 hospital admissions, 2.4 million lost workdays, and 14 million restricted-activity days.

But these figures just scratch the surface, apparently. Research has found, according to some experts, that diesel fumes degrade the immune system and interfere with hormones, reducing sperm production, masculinizing female rats, and changing the development of baby rats.

The fumes cause serious permanent impairment of the nervous systems of railroad workers. Allergic reactions to the fumes cause thousands of kids to miss thousands of school days.

“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 people—not 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.