Raw Diesel Fumes Worse Than Second-Hand Smoke, Says W.H.O.

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2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel, 2012 New York Auto Show

2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel, 2012 New York Auto Show

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Diesel cars might get great gas mileage when compared to their gasoline counterparts, but now the World Health Organization has warned that diesel fumes are now known to prove lung cancer. 

In fact, the W.H.O. says, diesel fumes are more carcinogenic than secondhand cigarette smoke. So dangerous, it has decided to elevate diesel to the status of “known carcinogen”, reports the New York Times.

However, the health risk is most pronounced in countries with poor air quality standards, where diesel trucks, generators and machinery commonly produce black clouds of sooty exhaust fumes. 

By contrast, in the U.S. and Europe, tough emissions standards require diesel cars and trucks produce as little emissions and exhaust particulates as possible. 

Even with higher-pressure direct injection and ultra-low sulfur fuel, so-called ‘clean-diesel’ engines may suffer at the hand of the W.H.O’s new classification of diesel fumes.


BMW's 3.0-liter twin turbo diesel

BMW's 3.0-liter twin turbo diesel

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According to Dr. Silverman, chief of environmental epidemiology at the National Cancer Institute, the WH.O ruling was one she was “totally in support” of, adding that the U.S. government may soon declare diesel exhaust fumes a known carcinogen.

But the medical director of the American Cancer Society, Dr. otis W. Brawley, doesn’t think diesel cars are the main concern.

“I don’t think it’s bad to have a diesel car,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t think it’s good to breathe its exhaust. I’m not concerned about people who walk past a diesel vehicle, I’m a little concerned about people like toll collectors, and I’m very concerned about people like miners, who work where exhaust is concentrated.”

With gasoline exhaust still classified as a possible carcinogen by many health organizations, the W.H.O’s announcement regarding diesel fumes is likely to further incentivize the auto industry to develop greener-burning engines and better exhaust filtration systems to make cars as clean as possible. 

For now however, it is unlikely to dramatically influence consumer choice at the dealer, where diesel cars represent a tiny fraction of the total number of new cars sold in the U.S. each year. 

There is one final thought we’d like to add: if you’re in the market for a diesel car, remember that cars made within the past few years are far cleaner -- and greener -- than older diesel engines. 


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Comments (8)
  1. My 2010 VW Golf TDI which is equipped with common rail injection and a DPF (diesel particulate filter) burns so clean that there is no diesel smell or visible soot at any time. The older diesels are not even close to the cleanliness of the new generation of diesels with thousands of dollars of aftertreatment equipment onboard.

  2. You should also mentioned that the carcinogens from diesel causes bladder cancer and sometimes severe respiratory problems in children. Now that this information is known and being spread around the Internet; if you have a diesel vehicle and there are children living close to you, you should be weary because it could open a path for a lawsuit from the children's parents.

  3. Yes, large sooty particles kill. Particulate matter kills up to 4.5 million people a year, according to UN.

    However, the most dangerous diesel particles are the smallest ones less than 2.5 micron. These can't be easily seen or filtered. These nano-particles bypass being caught by the lungs, and go directly into the blood and deeply into organs.

    New diesels put out more quantity of nano-particles than older sooty diesels...

  4. Stop running diesels on petroleum distallates and use them as Rudolph Diesel intended, with vegetable oils.

  5. After this summer started, I noticed that the price of diesel dropped relative to gasoline. The reason is that diesel FUEL has a much lower volatility (propensity to evaporate) than gasoline. The formula of gasoline has to be adjusted to lower its volatility because of the summer heat. Because of its inherent low volatility, diesel needs no adjusting…a la lower relative price. Diesel fuel nozzles at gas stations do not need a recirculation adapter like gasoline nozzles. That must mean that diesel fuel does not contribute to pollution near as much as gasoline. If the WHO claims that diesel FUMES cause cancer, they must be referring to all of the kids “huffing” diesel FUMES. Diesel EXHAUST has plenty of carcinogens in it…big news.

  6. Over regulating diesel fuel would be the first step in crippling fragile economies. Diesel fuel drives the economies of the world. When the WHO can produce a viable alternative to diesel, then they can decide to regulate it. Until they do, they need to go back to studying how passing gas affects global warming.

  7. While we get absurd about carcinigens, plese point out that Lithium batteries are full of them, as are airbags for a car. Read the manuals about these two items for repair and disposal people. This would also make hybrids and electrics unusable.


  8. @James: Interesting link, and thanks for providing. I'd suggest, however, that your argument is what we call false equivalence.

    Tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of people are exposed daily to raw diesel fumes. The public health data on the cardiopulmonary damage from diesel emissions is well documented.

    I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that even a fraction of that number are exposed daily either to airbags in use or lithium-ion cell dismantling.

    The difference in degree seems striking enough to render your point a footnote to the article rather than any kind of viable counter-argument.

    Do you actually think that highlighting the hazards of diesel emissions is "absurd"? RLY?

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