WHO's cancer agency: Diesel fumes cause cancer

June 12, 2012 by MARIA CHENG

Diesel exhaust causes cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer agency declared Tuesday, a ruling it said could make exhaust as important a public health threat as secondhand smoke.

The risk of getting cancer from diesel fumes is small, but since so many people breathe in the fumes in some way, the science panel said raising the status of diesel exhaust to carcinogen from "probable carcinogen" was an important shift.

"It's on the same order of magnitude as passive smoking," said Kurt Straif, director of the IARC department that evaluates cancer risks. "This could be another big push for countries to clean up exhaust from diesel engines."

Since so many people are exposed to exhaust, Straif said there could be many cases of lung cancer connected to the contaminant. He said the fumes affected groups including pedestrians on the street, ship passengers and crew, railroad workers, truck drivers, mechanics, miners and people operating heavy machinery.

The new classification followed a weeklong discussion in Lyon, France, by an expert panel organized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The panel's decision stands as the ruling for the IARC, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization.

The last time the agency considered the status of diesel exhaust was in 1989, when it was labeled a "probable" carcinogen. Reclassifying diesel exhaust as carcinogenic puts it into the same category as other known hazards such as asbestos, alcohol and ultraviolet radiation.

The U.S. government, however, still classifies diesel exhaust as a likely carcinogen. Experts said new diesel engines spew out fewer fumes but further studies are needed to assess any potential dangers.

"We don't have enough evidence to say these new engines are zero risk, but they are certainly lower risk than before," said Vincent Cogliano of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Experts in Lyon had analyzed published studies, evidence from animals and limited research in humans. One of the biggest studies was published in March by the U.S. National Cancer Institute. That paper analyzed 12,300 miners for several decades starting in 1947. Researchers found miners heavily exposed to diesel exhaust had a higher risk of dying from lung cancer.

Lobbyists for the diesel industry argued the study wasn't credible because researchers didn't have exact data on how much exposure miners got in the early years of the study; they simply asked them to remember what their exposure was like.

A person's risk for cancer depends on many variables, from genetic makeup to the amount and length of time of exposure to dangerous substances.

A U.S. group that represents diesel engine makers says major technological advances in the last decade have cut emissions from trucks and buses by more than 95 percent for nitrogen oxides, particulate and sulfur emissions.

Some experts said the new classification wasn't surprising.

"It's pretty well known that if you get enough exposure to diesel, it's a carcinogen," said Ken Donaldson, a professor of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh who was not part of the IARC panel. He said the thousands of particles, including some harmful chemicals, in the exhaust could cause inflammation in the lungs and over time, that could lead to cancer.

But Donaldson said lung cancer was caused by multiple factors and that other things like smoking were far more deadly. He said the people most at risk were those whose jobs exposed them to high levels of diesel exhaust, like truck drivers, mechanics, or miners.

"For the man on the street, nothing has changed," he said. "It's a known risk but a low one for the average person, so people should go about their business as normal ... you could wear a mask if you want to, but who wants to walk around all the time with a mask on?"

Explore further: Studies show exposure to diesel exhaust may increase lung cancer mortality

More information: Online: www.iarc.fr

shares

Related Stories

Studies show exposure to diesel exhaust may increase lung cancer mortality

March 2, 2012
Heavy diesel exhaust (DE) exposure in humans may increase the risk of dying from lung cancer, according to two papers released March 2nd by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Diesel-engine exhaust filter reduces harmful particles by 98 percent

April 11, 2011
A commercially available particle trap can filter microscopic pollutants in diesel-engine exhaust and prevent about 98 percent of them from reaching the air, according to research reported in Circulation: Journal of the American ...

Recommended for you

Many pelvic tumors in women may have common origin—fallopian tubes

October 17, 2017
Most—and possibly all—ovarian cancers start, not in ovaries, but instead in the fallopian tubes attached to them.

Researchers find novel mechanism of resistance to anti-cancer drugs

October 17, 2017
The targeted anti-cancer therapies cetuximab and panitumumab are mainstays of treatment for advanced colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. However, many patients have tumors ...

Biology of childhood brain tumor subtypes offers clues to precision treatments

October 17, 2017
Researchers investigating pediatric low-grade gliomas (PLGG), the most common type of brain tumor in children, have discovered key biological differences in how mutated genes combine with other genes to drive this childhood ...

New assay may boost targeted treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma

October 17, 2017
Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) is an aggressive cancer and the most frequently diagnosed non-Hodgkin lymphoma worldwide (nearly 40% of cases). Recent advancements indicate that both the prognosis and choice of treatment ...

Bolstering fat cells offers potential new leukemia treatment

October 16, 2017
Killing cancer cells indirectly by powering up fat cells in the bone marrow could help acute myeloid leukemia patients, according to a new study from McMaster University.

Study reveals complex biology, gender differences, in kidney cancer

October 13, 2017
A new study is believed to be the first to describe the unique role of androgens in kidney cancer, and it suggests that a new approach to treatment, targeting the androgen receptor (AR), is worth further investigation.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dogbert
3 / 5 (2) Jun 12, 2012
The WHO needs something else to do. They need to increase their interference.

Sanescience
not rated yet Jun 13, 2012
Diesel "fumes"!? That is not what diesel exhaust is! Fumes are given off by open air pools of diesel fuel. Exhaust is what comes out of the tail pipe after burned in the engine.

COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!

Not to mention "diesel fuel" is simply something you put into a diesel engine and is a wide range of chemicals. I am making the assumption that this article references old style sulfur petrodiesel.

bhiestand
not rated yet Jun 13, 2012
I wouldn't be surprised if diesel fumes were also carcinogenic, but you're right... the actual IARC press release says "exhaust".

I'd read the IARC press release (it's a lot better) and wait for details to be published in Lancet Oncology on the 15th. They do reference improvements in fuels and engines, but don't go into specifics. I imagine the new stuff is safer but still not safe.

IARC press release: http://press.iarc...13_E.pdf
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Jun 17, 2012
Their ill-logic[sic] is amusing. Petrol fumes are at least as carcinogenic by their ill-logic, perhaps more so, as they are more widely used.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.