WHO Declares Diesel Exhaust ‘Carcinogenic’

The recent WHO report which declared that diesel exhaust causes cancer was widely picked up by various news media. Diesel fumes are of a slightly different composition than gasoline fumes and since 1989, they were deemed as a ‘possible carcinogen’ and now have been upgraded to a definite threat to human health.

Diesel exhaust, however, affects people in a similar fashion to secondhand smoke. Those who are regularly exposed have a higher chance of getting cancer. The WHO study looked at a population of 12,000 underground miners over the course of the past 60 years. Those regularly exposed to diesel exhaust had three times the rate of lung cancer deaths as their peers. Apart from mines, urban air does contain amounts of diesel exhaust as well as particulates in suspension, which cannot always be avoided. This is something that the WHO acknowledges in the report, as stated below:

“Large populations are exposed to diesel exhaust in everyday life, whether through their occupation or through the ambient air. People are exposed not only to motor vehicle exhaust but also to exhaust from other diesel engines, including from other modes of transport (e.g. diesel trains and ships) and from power  generators.”

Although ambient urban air does contain diesel exhaust, it is most harmful in enclosed places like mines or housing complexes that are located near facilities that emit a lot of diesel. The study however, does not take into account exhaust from diesel generators which are a common source of backup power in countries like India. Most of these are used in shopping complexes, small-scale industries and even houses, often without proper ventilation.

Environmental concerns in North America, Europe and elsewhere over the past two decades have resulted in tighter emission standards for both diesel and gasoline. The report notes that there is, “strong interplay between standards and technology – standards drive technology and new technology enables more stringent standards.” This for the most part is true, engine manufacturers need not come up with more efficient designs if there is no pressure to do so. Diesel engines are especially challenging because the fuel itself needs to have a much lower sulfur content to burn more efficiently.

Image Credit: Flickr/CC BY 3.0

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net