Being Run Over by Diesel

The health effects of diesel engine exhaust in confined areas are being researched more than ever before, as diesel engines are used by an increasing number of vehicles and generators. The list of people possibly affected is growing: children in school buses, mechanics in train, truck, car, and bus garages, dock workers in ships' holds, electricians, plumbers, and construction workers in enclosed construction sites, toll both collectors, forklift drivers in warehouses, and miners are all potentially at risk from the chemical cocktail that is diesel exhaust.

Diesel fuel is a complex mixture of petroleum compounds. Diesel engine exhaust contains at least 20 times more particles than gasoline exhaust, and also includes nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, benzene, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) notes that there are currently no standards for diesel exhaust as a unique hazard.

The short-term health effects from diesel exhaust being studied include irritations of eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, weakness, and respiratory difficulties. The long-term effects may include cancer (several substances in diesel exhaust are known carcinogens), chronic respiratory problems, and impairment of neurological functions such as reduced reaction times and balance.

One study followed electricians working on a shopping mall in New Jersey. Idling ready mix concrete trucks poured diesel exhaust into their workspace, resulting in all workers visiting emergency rooms with respiratory problems. Another study sampled air inside diesel school buses and found the levels of diesel exhaust eight times higher than outside air in California, and some 23 times higher than EPA guidelines.

OSHA notes that "currently available control technology could significantly limit diesel exhaust exposures," so improvements in indoor/workplace air quality may not be far behind.


Kilburn, Kaye. 2000. "Effects of Diesel Exhaust on Neurobehavioral and Pulmonary Functions," January, Archives of Environmental Health,

Lazaroff, Cat, 2000. "Diesel Fumes Mean Cancer for Thousands of Americans," Environment News Service,

National Resources Defense Council. 2001. "Tests Reveal High Levels Of Toxics Inside Diesel School Buses," February 12.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 1998. "Diesel Exhaust." Technical Links,