Diesel exhaust is the emission from diesel-powered engines and machines. Although not classified as a carcinogen, many particulates in diesel exhaust cause cancer. Occupational exposure to diesel exhaust is a risk for workers including miners, truck and forklift drivers and people working on bridges, farms, loading docks, railroads and in tunnels. Diesel-powered buses pose a threat to school children and public transportation passengers. Symptoms of diesel exhaust include headaches, eye irritation and coughing. During long-term exposure, soot particles are inhaled into the lungs. This can cause cancer and respiratory conditions including asthma. Studies connect airborne particles like diesel exhaust to increased hospital treatment for pneumonia, heart and lung disease and some 60,000 premature deaths annually. Alternatives to diesel fuel include electric power and liquefied natural gas.
Diesel exhaust permeates the air as a contaminant in workplaces where diesel-powered equipment is used. Because the use of diesel equipment is expanding, workers are increasingly being exposed to diesel exhaust. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), over one million workers are exposed to diesel exhaust and may develop adverse health effects due to such exposure. These workers include truck drivers, longshoring employees, loading dock workers, mine workers, auto, truck, and bus maintenance garage workers, bridge and tunnel workers, farm workers, material handling machine operators, and railroad workers. At present there are no standards for diesel exhaust. It is imperative that diesel equipment is properly operated, maintained, and adjusted to control diesel emissions.
Diesel engines are used by an increasing number of railroad locomotives, placing railroad employees at high risk from diesel exhaust. Generally railroad workers who suffer from work-related injuries such asdiesel exhaust exposure are covered under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which provides workers’ compensation, including disability and death benefits, for employees of railroads engaged in interstate and foreign commerce. Although the harmful effects upon railroad workers of exposure to diesel exhaust has been the subject of several studies and has been known for many years, most of the railroads have done little or nothing about taking preventive measures, or informing their employees of the hazards of diesel exhaust.
Diesel Exhaust Components
Diesel exhaust is a mixture of over 9,000 different components which are produced when diesel fuel is burned in a diesel engine. Diesel exhaust is made up of particulates (soot) and various gases. The most prevalent gases that are present are sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and various complex compounds called aldehydes. Each one of these has been recognized as a pollutant and should be regulated in the workplace. Many of these components of diesel exhaust are potentially very dangerous and carcinogenic.
Symptoms and Diseases Resulting from Diesel Exhaust Exposure
Workers exposed to high concentrations of diesel exhaust have reported the following short-term health symptoms: irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat; lightheadedness; heartburn; headache; weakness; numbness; tingling in the extremities; wheezing; and vomiting. Other respiratory symptoms from diesel exhaust exposure include persistent cough and mucus, bronchitis, and reduced lung capacity. Gases in diesel exhaust, such as nitrous oxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, benzene, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide, can also create health problems. In addition to entering the body through the respiratory system, harmful diesel exhaust components can enter the body through the eyes, possibly causing permanent damage to the optic nerve, and possibly even to the brain and central nervous system.
Chronic diesel exhaust exposure can also cause several serious diseases. Diesel exhaust soot consists of very small particles that can be inhaled and deposited in the lungs. These particles carry cancer-causing substances known as polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). When these particles accumulate in the lungs, lung function decreases and shortness of breath results (obstructive lung disease) which sometimes leads to diesel asthma. Many types of cancer can occur in those exposed to diesel exhaust. A recent study of workers tied diesel exhaust exposure to memory deficits, sensory losses, equilibrium imbalances and mood swings (diesel encephalopathy).
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Potential Diseases Caused By Diesel Exhaust Exposure
Every day at work, employees working with diesel engines are exposed to diesel exhaust. Further, exposure to diesel exhaust is chronic. Failure to protect from diesel exhaust combined with chronic exposure will very likely result in a chemical disease. Although the harmful effects upon railroad workers of exposure to diesel exhaust has been the subject of several studies and has been known for many years, most of the railroads have done little or nothing about taking preventive measures, or informing their employees of the hazards. There are two chemical diseases one can contract from diesel exhaust exposure: obstructive lung disease and cancer. In addition to entering the body through the respiratory system, harmful diesel exhaust components can enter the body through the eyes, possibly causing permanent damage to the optic nerve, and possibly even to the brain and central nervous system.
Diesel Exhaust and Obstructive Lung Disease
A recent study determined that between 40% and 50% of train service workers suffer from the effects of obstructive lung disease as a result of their chronic, unprotected exposure to diesel exhaust. Railroaders who work in the shop crafts, as well as the maintenance of way and signal departments, have also suffered the effects of chemical disease when exposed to diesel exhaust in the workplace.