Diesel Exhaust Causes Lung Cancer and Possibly Bladder Cancer

Lung cancer can be caused by exposure to diesel engine exhaust

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Diesel fumes have been thought to increase the risk of lung cancer for a long time - since 1988. Now it's official.

Diesel engine exhaust does indeed cause lung cancer and may increase the risk of bladder cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Avoid diesel fumes as much as possible."

The group, which is calling for global attention and intervention, has classified diesel engine exhaust as a human carcinogen based on an extensive review of research.

Diesel exhaust has been on the "probably carcinogenic to humans" list since 1988. And it's been high on the priority list for re-evaluation for 14 years.

Diesel exhaust comes not just from trucks and cars, but also from trains, ships and power generators.

This reclassification comes after international experts met for a conference in Lyon, France.

Dr. Christopher Portier, chairman of the IARC Working Group, said, “The scientific evidence was compelling and the Working Group’s conclusion was unanimous: diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans.”

Evidence to support this move has been accelerating in recent years. In March, 2012, the results of a large US study found an increased risk of death from lung cancer in underground miners.

In addition to causing lung cancer, the working group found some evidence that diesel exhaust also increases the risk of bladder cancer.

In making the announcement, the IARC stated in its press release, "Given the Working Group’s rigorous, independent assessment of the science, governments and other decision makers have a valuable evidence base on which to consider environmental standards for diesel exhaust emissions and to continue to work with the engine and fuel manufacturers towards those goals."

Changes to mitigate this risk have already taken place, with new regulations in place in the United States, Europe and other countries. Interventions have included the redesign of diesel engines to reduce emissions and burn the fuel more efficiently.

These changes won't be fully in place for years though, particularly in developing countries where older equipment is still being used and regulations are less stringent.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how these changes will affect human health.

Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program, indicated that “The main studies that led to this conclusion were in highly exposed workers. However, we have learned from other carcinogens, such as radon, that initial studies showing a risk in heavily exposed occupational groups were followed by positive findings for the general population. Therefore actions to reduce exposures should encompass workers and the general population,” Dr. Straif said.

Dr. Christopher Wild, Director, IARC, said that "Today’s conclusion sends a strong signal that public health action is warranted." 

Dr. Wild concludes, "This emphasis is needed globally, including among the more vulnerable populations in developing countries where new technology and protective measures may otherwise take many years to be adopted.”

A summary of the evaluation of this research will appear in The Lancet Oncology as an online publication ahead of print on June 15, 2012. 

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 12, 2012
Last Updated:
October 23, 2012