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       Hazards, number 144, 2018
Diesel exhaust: A dirty industry game that means thousands will die
We warned over 30 years ago that diesel fumes were deadly, with millions at risk at work every day. If the authorities had listened then, today’s diesel exhaust driven public health catastrophe could have been averted. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill reveals the criminal acts that left a working generation exposed and cost tens of thousands their lives.

 

Diesel exhaust emissions are on the Health and Safety Executive’s top 10 occupational cancer ‘priorities for prevention’.1

There is good reason. Diesel exhaust fumes cause, in HSE’s estimation, 652 deaths a year from lung and bladder cancer. Exposure is also linked to respiratory disease, heart problems and other chronic and acute health effects.

But the UK’s prevention strategy – or absence of one – is based on a fatal mixture of a lack of the right intelligence and lack of give-a-damn. All topped up with a dose of industry foul play.

Missing cancers



STALLED PROGRESS  Diesel exhaust is one of the biggest workplace killers, the TUC has said, but it warns the UK is failing to take the action necessary to protect workers. The union body, which has published a detailed guide to the risks and their prevention, says while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates these exposures kill around 800 workers each year, this hasn’t led to effective action to reduce the toll. [more]

Take cancer.  An expert panel convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer 2 (IARC), a United Nations body, announced on 11 June 2012 that diesel had been reclassified as a top rated ‘Group 1’ carcinogen, with lung cancer a slam dunk and a probable bladder cancer association.

That translates into lost lives. HSE estimates around 600 occupational lung cancer deaths in the UK each year 3 are caused by diesel exhaust exposures.

But a 2013 study blows a hole in the estimate on which HSE is basing its prevention priorities, falling shockingly short of the true toll.. The researchers from US and European institutions, writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives,4 estimate that based on diesel exhaust exposure data available in the US and UK, 4.8 per cent of lung cancer deaths are due to occupational exposure to diesel exhaust, while 1.3 per cent is due to environmental exposures.

In 2016, there were 35,620 deaths from lung cancer in the UK. Based on the findings of the 2013 study, that would equate to over 1,700 occupational lung cancer deaths linked to diesel alone each year.



AND BREATHE?  Millions of workers spend a large part of their working lives either on the roads or at the road sides. They are at increased risk of cancers, lung diseases, heart problems and other conditions as a result.

HSE’s cancer estimates give a diesel exhaust attributable fraction of just 1.84 per cent, or 605 occupational lung cancer deaths. HSE’s estimate could be falling over 1,000 deaths a year short of the actual diesel exhaust-related lung cancer toll.

If you under-estimate the size of the problem, you don’t respond appropriately. Diesel exhaust fume is not treated like a cancer-causing exposure in UK safety law, despite the official recognition it is one of the top occupational cancer killers. There’s not even an official occupational exposure limit.

And although HSE accepts it causes both lung and bladder cancer, affected workers don’t qualify for state industrial disease payouts.

Industry pressure

In 1986, Hazards warned about cancers and respiratory diseases caused by diesel fumes, and called for safer fuels, better design and maintenance of engines and better ventilation and scrubbers (Hazards 7).

But diesel use continued unchecked, with diesel engines promoted actively as a ‘clean’ technology, a well-oiled process continued today by benign sounding lobby groups like the Diesel Technology Forum. The Volkswagen ‘dieselgate’ scandal was a very public exposure of the lengths to which industry will go to protect even established killers like diesel exhaust emissions.

Dirty science backed by the automotive and petrochemicals industry has been protecting the dirty, deadly product for decades. This culminated in a last ditch and ultimately futile attempt to derail the IARC group 1 cancer ranking for disease exhaust at the 2012 experts’ meeting.

According to Celeste Monforton, an occupational safety expert at George Washington University and a former official with the US workplace safety watchdog OSHA and its mines equivalent MSHA, the diesel industry was “following the same-old play book used by tobacco, asbestos and other industries to manufacture uncertainty5 about a serious health risk.”6

She said the industry hired consultants to reanalyse and raise doubts about the key evidence on cancer risks. A stack of journal papers were “hot off-the-presses just in time for the IARC meeting” in 2012, she said.

Among the innocuous sounding organisations backing this rush of ‘new’ evidence critical of the cancer studies was CONservation of Clean Air and Water in Europe (CONCAWE). The organisation, which was established by refinery companies and whose ‘full membership is currently open to companies that own crude oil refining capacity’, also backed journal papers challenging rock solid studies linking low level exposure to benzene – present in petrol and diesel emissions – to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (Hazards 129).

A co-funder with CONCAWE of the paper designed to undermine the cancer evidence on diesel was Mining Awareness Resource Group (MARG), a mining industry front organisation which since the 1990s has sought to protect diesel from any cancer label.7



SCIENTIFIC FOG
  While workers are left in a blue haze, the manufacturers of diesel engines and fuels have rigged the scientific evidence to give their dangerous products extra breathing space.

The case for mining is overwhelming, and reinforced by recent evidence from the USA8,9,10Australia11 and Canada12, but just raising doubt ties up regulators and can stall progress for years.

Unlike many other occupational exposures, most of us will have experienced damaging exposures to diesel exhaust before we ever enter the workforce. A 2018 study led by Professor Chris Griffiths of Queen Mary University, London, found the capacity of children’s lungs was reduced by about 5 per cent when NO2 (diesel exhaust component nitrogen dioxide) pollution was above legal levels.

The findings, published in the Lancet Public Health13 in November 2018, led the authors to recommend that doctors should consider advising parents of children with lung problems to avoid living in high-pollution areas if possible, or to limit their exposure.

Standard problem

Even with the diesel cancer ranking now settled, the industry lobby is succeeding in protecting its diesel products and technology at the expense of workers and the community.

In October 2018, the Europe-wide trade union body ETUC14 welcomed a new diesel exhaust fumes exposure standard. The European Union standard, which should be introduced in the UK, also recognises for the first time that diesel exhaust is a cause of occupational cancers.

The ETUC says 3.6 million workers in the EU are at risk of exposures, adding the new limit will prevent at least 6,000 deaths per year from lung cancer. The binding occupational exposure limit (BOEL) of 0.05 mg/m³ for elemental carbon – basically the soot in the exhaust fume – is due to take effect across the EU after a transition period of two years for most jobs and an additional five years for underground mining and tunnel construction.

But even when the standard does take effect, it’s not the protective standard it should have been.

The advice provided to law makers by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL)15 was that there should be a much more stringent diesel exhaust standard, recommending a level of 0.02mg/m3.
The SCOEL advice warned that at a lower still level of 0.015mg/m3 there are “significant cancer risks already at and below these exposure levels.” Estimates suggest that a working lifetime even at this level – less than a third the agreed new standard – four in every 1,000 workers would die of a related-cancer.

The evidence didn’t change in the intervening period. But the industry lobbyists took their chance and governments listened.

In what one insider called ‘a victory for Volkswagen and BMW’, our protectors have decided that more must die.

References

1. Occupational cancer – priorities for prevention, report to the HSE board meeting, 16 May 2012
2. Diesel Engine Exhaust carcinogenic - expert panel and news release, IARC, 12 June 2012.
3. The burden of occupational lung cancer in Great Britain: Lung cancer, HSE, 2012.
4. Roel Vermeulen, Debra T Silverman, Eric Garshick, Jelle Vlaanderen, Lützen Portengen, and Kyle Steenland. Exposure-Response Estimates for Diesel Engine Exhaust and Lung Cancer Mortality Based on Data from Three Occupational Cohorts, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 122, number 2, pages 172-177, February 2014 (published online ahead of print 22 November 2013). [pdf].
5. David Michaels and Celeste Monforton. Manufacturing uncertainty: Contested science and the protection of the public’s health and environment, American Journal of Public Health, volume 95, Supplement 1, S39-S48, 2005.
6. Celeste Monforton. Trying to avoid the "cancer-causing" label, diesel manufacturers join the club, The Pump Handle public health blog, 11 June 2012.
7. Celeste Monforton. Weight of the evidence or wait for the evidence? Protecting underground miners from diesel particulate matter, American Journal of Public Health, volume 96, number 2, pages 271-276, 2006.
8. Silverman T, Sarnanci C, Lubin J and others. The Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study: A Nested Case–Control. Study of Lung Cancer and Diesel Exhaust. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, volume 104, pages 1–14, 2012.
9. Attfield MD, Schlieff PL, Lubin JH and others. The diesel exhaust in miners study: a cohort mortality study with emphasis on lung cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2 March 2012. doi:10.1093/jnci/djs035 [pdf].
10. Q&A on the diesel exhaust and miners study, National Cancer Institute news release, 2 March 2012.
11. Susan Peters and others. Estimation of quantitative levels of diesel exhaust exposure and the health impact in the contemporary Australian mining industry, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 74, pages 282-289, 2017 (published online first, 15 November 2016).
12. Diesel engine exhaust: Burden of occupational cancer fact sheet, CAREX Canada, 2017.
13. Ian S Mudway and others. Impact of London's low emission zone on air quality and children's respiratory health: a sequential annual cross-sectional study, Lancet Public Health, published First Online,14 November 2018.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30202-0
14. A trade union victory in protecting workers exposed to diesel engine exhaust, ETUC news release, 11 October 2018.
15. Opinion from the Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits, SCOEL/OPIN/403, diesel engine exhaust, Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits (SCOEL), 17 January 2017.

 

 



TUC presses for action on deadly diesel

Diesel exhaust is one of the biggest workplace killers, the TUC has said, but it warns the UK is failing to take the action necessary to protect workers. The union body, which has published a detailed guide to the risks and their prevention, says while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates these exposures kill around 800 workers each year, this hasn’t led to effective action to reduce the toll.

TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: “At the moment, the level of awareness about the dangers of diesel fuel is appalling, and any enforcement action is rare.” He added that “trade unions need to ensure that their employers take action to remove or reduce the risk from diesel exhaust to the lowest level possible…. That is why the TUC has published a guide to diesel exhaust that highlights the practical and simple steps that your employer can take to protect their workers.”

The guide “gives a clear and simple message to all trade union health and safety representatives. If you can see or smell diesel exhaust emissions in your workplace then you have a problem and your employer needs to sort it.”

In 2017, Unite launched a national campaign against the diesel exhaust ‘ticking time bomb’. Its diesel emissions register allows Unite members to record when they have been exposed to excessive diesel exhaust fumes. The union says the information will be used “to report accidents, force employers to clean up their workplaces and could be the basis of future legal claims.”

Research in 2015 by the union GMB, found ‘excessive’ levels of diesel exhaust fumes on Britain’s streets were putting workers at serious risk. The union said “street cleaners, refuse workers, parking enforcement staff, utility workers, police community support workers and others are particularly exposed to such pollutants.” Studies have also shown professional drivers can also be at risk, as exhaust fumes can become concentrated in their cabs.

In addition to cancers, diesel exhaust emission exposures can cause heart, lung and other diseases.

Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018. www.tuc.org.uk/dieselfumes

 

RESOURCES

Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018.
Unite diesel exhaust register, guide for members and poster.
Diesel Exhaust fact sheet, CCOHS, Canada.
OSHA Diesel Exhaust/Diesel Particulate Matter Hazard Alert, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).


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Fuming

We warned over 30 years ago that diesel fumes were deadly, with millions at risk at work every day. If the authorities had listened then, today’s diesel exhaust driven public health catastrophe could have been averted. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill reveals the criminal acts that left a working generation exposed and cost tens of thousands their lives.

Contents
Introduction
Missing cancers
Industry pressure
Standard problem
References
Resources

Related stories
TUC presses for action on deadly diesel

Hazards webpages
Cancer
Chemicals

More information
Die diesel die- Tips from Hazards on how to escape the diesel menace at work – factsheet and poster.
Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018.