Railroad Diesel Exhaust Fume Cancers: Leukemia, MDS and Lung Cancers | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Railroad workers face numerous risks each day as a part of their jobs. Heavy machinery, fast moving engine parts, and the physical labor they are required to perform all increase the odds of work related accidents and injuries. However, it is an invisible danger that presents one of the biggest hazards to the health and safety of these workers, and the hidden danger of prolonged diesel exhaust fume exposure is the culprit. 


For decades, exposure to diesel exhaust fumes has adversely affected railroad employees in Virginia, North Carolina, and places throughout the United States. As experienced railroad accident lawyers, we represent railroad victims and their families when life threatening and often fatal illnesses such as lung cancer, leukemia, and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) occur as a result of prolonged diesel exhaust fume exposure, particularly extending over 20+ years. If you or someone you care about has previously worked for or retired from the railroad industry, it is important to be aware of the risks and your rights in filing a claim. 

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Dangerous Chemicals In Diesel Exhaust


At Shapiro & Appleton, we represent clients in Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claims. Over the course of the past 30 years, we found that one of the most insidious and dangerous risks railroad workers faced is the exposure to diesel fumes when working inside locomotive cabs that were not air-conditioned. Idling engines, multiple engines in motion, engines that are reversing, can cause the fumes from the exhaust stacks on top of railroad locomotives to stream into windows or cracks in the locomotive crew cabs. Crew cabs are a small compartment usually occupied by two crew members: the engineer and the conductor.


Veteran railroad workers and those who have retired often end up dealing with the lingering after effects, often unaware that diesel exhaust fumes contained dozens of carcinogens went to many cancers and diseases. In a previous post on diesel engines and cancer risks, we outlined some chemicals contained within railroad diesel fumes, many of which are known carcinogens: 


  • Carbon monoxide;
  • Nitrogen dioxide;
  • Nitric oxide;
  • Non-regulated particulates;
  • Sulfur dioxide. 


In addition to these main components, diesel exhaust also contains minor components of chemicals such as formaldehyde, acrolein, benzene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). According to the American Cancer Society, all of these can be linked to higher rates of cancer and other diseases. 


Railroad Diesel Exhaust and Increased Lung Cancer Rates


In a diesel exhaust fume and disease article for the Legal Examiner, we explored the link between diesel exhaust fumes and higher heart attack and heart disease rates among railroad workers. Breathing these fumes over an intermittent period of time increases cancer risks as well. 


Dozens, if not hundreds, of minor components in diesel exhaust are known carcinogens. This includes formaldehyde, which plays a crucial role in the link between diesel fumes and throat or nasal cancer. These toxins also increase the risk among railroad workers for potentially deadly lung cancers. These include: 


  • Small cell lung cancer (SCLC), one of the least common but most aggressive and deadly types of lung cancer;
  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), which includes dangerous but less aggressive adenocarcinomas, squamous, and large cell carcinomas. These comprise roughly 85 percent of all lung cancer cases. 


The World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly issued warnings about the risk of diesel exhaust and carcinogen risks, not only for railroad workers but for anyone exposed to toxins contained within diesel fuel exhaust. On older trains, these toxins can be found in exhaust dust that accumulates in engine rooms or through fumes thrown off through exhaust stacks. 


Benzene and Leukemia/MDS Risk


Benzene is another of the more common and potentially dangerous toxins railroad workers are exposed to as a result of diesel exhaust fumes. Derived from petroleum, benzene was developed over the course of the 21st century and used extensively in gasoline. While the general population does face risks of benzene exposure as the result of automotive exhaust fumes, it is a relatively small amount compared to what industrial workers routinely face. 


As part of the diesel fuel used to operate locomotives and other railway machines, railroad workers end up being exposed to high levels of benzene given off through exhaust fumes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that benzene damages the bone marrow and decreases the amount of circulating blood cells. For railroad workers, their high level of exposure significantly increases blood cancer risks. Diseases they are likely to suffer include the following: 


  • Aplastic anemia, a relatively rare condition in which the bone marrow stops producing the proper amount of blood cells;
  • Leukemia, a type of cancer which prevents the body from forming blood cells or fighting infections;
  • Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a group of cancerous disorders impacting the bone marrow, which also results in problems with blood cell production. 


Compensation For Railroad Workers With Leukemia, MDS, and Lung Cancers


For railroad workers who suffer leukemia, MDS, or other lung cancers as a result of diesel exhaust fume exposure, compensation for them and their family members may be available through the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). This can help to cover your lost wages, medical costs, pain and suffering as well as permanent impairment, psychological aspects, and other expenses, while holding the railroad industry accountable for their failure to protect worker safety. 

When you suffer these types of conditions or have lost a loved one as a result, filing a claim provides more than just compensation. It gives you a sense of justice. At Shapiro & Appleton, we are dedicated to providing the compassionate client care and professional legal representation railroad workers and their families need in these situations. To discuss your rights in filing a claim, call or contact our railroad worker/FELA claims attorneys online and request a consultation at one of our offices in Virginia or North Carolina today.