Working with Diesel and Risk of Cancer

Hooded man breathing diesel smokeCancer and Diesel

Did you know:

  • In 1994, just 7.4 per cent of UK vehicles ran on diesel. Today 2 out of every 5 of the 31.2 million cars that are on the UK’s roads are diesel cars, which is up 0.5% on the previous year despite a 16% drop in new registrations.
  • Petrol exhaust contains similar chemicals to diesel, but petrol engines emit much lower amounts of fine particles, so it’s much less able to get stuck in the lungs in the same way as diesel exhaust.
  • Someone is diagnosed with some form of cancer in the UK every two minutes
  • An individual’s risk of developing a cancer is influenced not only by a job but other factors such as age, smoking, alcohol and genetics
  • Estimates suggest that 85 per cent of lung cancers are linked to smoking, making it by far the biggest cause of cancer

Work and Diesel

  • There were 652 deaths from diesel engine exhausts emissions[1] making it one of the main causes of cancer cause by a job
  • Workers most at risk are those working with diesel operated heavy vehicles, working near motor vehicles such as when coming into and out of car parks or when passing toll booths. Also those working in tunnels or on construction sites where diesel operated stationary power sources are being used.
  • Employers must protect your health and safety by law and that includes protecting you from breathing in diesel exhaust fumes
  • Breathing in diesel fumes over a short period can affect your health, and exposure to the fumes can cause irritation of your eyes or respiratory tract.
  • Breathing in diesel fumes, particularly any with blue or black smoke, can cause coughing, chestiness and breathlessness.
  • There are three kinds of smoke from diesel exhaust:
    • Blue smoke (mainly oil and unburnt fuel) which indicates a poorly serviced and/or tuned engine;
    • Black smoke (soot, oil and unburnt fuel) which indicates a mechanical fault with the engine;
    • White smoke (water droplets and unburnt fuel) from cold engines and disappears when the engine warms up. With older engines, the white smoke produced has a sharp smell which may cause irritation to your upper respiratory system.

What Influences Poor Health

  • The quantity and composition of diesel fumes may vary depending on:
    • quality of diesel fuel used;
    • type of engine, e.g., standard, turbo or injector;
    • state of engine tuning;
    • fuel pump setting;
    • workload demand on the engine;
    • engine temperature;
    • whether the engine has been regularly maintained.
  • Also how long you work with the fume
  • Extraction methods and airflow
  • Whether you have damaged lungs already

What to Do

Leading a healthy lifestyle is not a cast-iron guarantee against cancer. But it reduces the risk of the disease. If you think about cancer risk like a hand of cards, some people are dealt a worse hand because of their genes, some people a better one.

If you think your health is affected by exposure to diesel fumes,; tell your employer (e.g.,supervisor) and/or safety representative, and consult your doctor.

[1] IOSH cancer booklet, Work Cancer: The Facts

Further Advice and Information

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