New Railroad Health Study Links COPD Deaths to Prolonged Diesel Fume Exposure | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Medical and scientific evidence indicates that exposure to diesel fumes, if inhaled over prolonged periods of time, may lead to a variety of health conditions including diesel fume asthma, airways disease, reactive airways disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as higher rates of lung and other cancers. 


Notably, a recent study by a well-known researcher in the United States, Dr Garshick, has determined increased death rates categorized as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (C.O.P.D.) because of long term exposure to diesel fumes. The major study excluded the effect of cigarette smoking and still found higher death rates associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease associated with long-term exposure to diesel fumes at railroads. This new study was just released in 2009. Previous Dr Garshick medical studies have shown increased rates of lung cancer associated with long-term exposure to diesel fumes and this author has written on this topic previously. Also, a wide variety of conditions commonly called diesel fume asthma have been associated with prolonged exposure to diesel fumes.


Why are diesel fumes dangerous and causing health problems? The reason is that diesel fumes have very fine, tiny particulates that form a part of the fumes. These very tiny particulates are often 1 to 2 µ (microns) in size and this size particulate can easily get into the lower part of the lungs, the medical studies show. Also, these particulates are include what is called poly aromatic hydrocarbons or PAH.’s. There are a number of known toxic carcinogens that form a part of the particulate of diesel exhaust fumes, in the PAH content.

Further, our research of the railroad industry shows that by 1955 the Railway Claim Agents around the country had been briefed by one of the railroad defense attorneys about the common health effects of diesel fume exposure.


By 1959, one of the railroad’s chief medical officers even wrote an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association denying that they were increased cancers caused by diesel fume exhaust. It should be noted that by 1959 doctors and scientists had not yet linked cigarettes to lung cancer either-and despite his findings, clear proof connecting increased rates of cancer to diesel fumes have since been well documented. However, by the 1980s, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health had issued a report raising major concerns about carcinogens that were in diesel exhaust fumes. The information was in a 1988 Current Intelligence Bulletin 50 issued by the research arm of Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This 1988 bulletin was widely circulated to industry professionals including the railroad medical doctors.


Internal documents at CSX., and at other railroads such as Norfolk Southern (NS), indicate that Harvard researchers approached the entire railroad industry and the Association of American Railroads about the same time, asking to do a major health study of all railroad workers because of the alarming issues relating to diesel fume health effects.  There are many internal railroad documents in the late 1980s showing that many Railroad officials did not want to participate in such a large study because the railroad’s believed it might fuel additional worker lawsuits or claims for health affect injuries. 


Despite the fact that an industrywide health survey was not agreed upon by the nation’s railroads, several major researchers still were able to conduct health affect studies that were released mainly in the 1990’s. Sure enough, a series of studies released in the 1990s confirmed adverse health affects of diesel fumes on railroad workers, showing higher rates of lung cancer and other cancers then to those not exposed to prolonged diesel fumes, showing diesel fume asthma was being caused by long-term exposure to diesel fumes and other types of health affects. Of course, the railroads continue to adhere to the position that there is no health problem of prolonged diesel fume exposure. Amazingly, in the 1990s the railroads engaged in no organized workplace awareness training, never provided respirators to workers having obvious exposures to diesel fumes, and essentially changed nothing in the workplace despite these medical studies.


The railroads essentially buried their heads in the ground and hoped that medical professionals would not wake up to the pervasiveness of the health effects to workers with long-term exposures to diesel fumes but the studies are now more well known and there is an increasing awareness among pulmonary and occupational health professionals of the long-term adverse effects of diesel fumes, especially at railroads which have used diesel engines exclusively since 1960. Again, the 2009 study confirming that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is associated with increased death/mortality of railroad workers is just one more confirmation of the bad effects of prolonged diesel fume exposure. 


For prior articles I have authored on diesel fume health issues at railroads:


Long Term Railroad Diesel Exhaust Fume Exposure Linked to Asthma

Major Railroad Worker Verdict Against CSX for Engineer Exposed to

Railroad Industry Diesel Exhaust Fume Diseases: Interview With