New study exposes UK inaction on diesel controls

A new evaluation of the protective health effect of tight workplace exposure standards for diesel engine exhaust has exposed the potentially high cost of the UK’s continuing failure to introduce any standard and its refusal to regulate diesel exhaust as a workplace cancer risk.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified diesel exhaust as a top rated ‘Group 1’ human carcinogen in 2012 (Risks 560), but the UK still does not treat it as a workplace cancer cause for regulatory purposes.

The Utrecht University study published on 11 February 2022 indicated adherence to a new European Union standard could reduce the toll by a fifth, preventing hundreds of deaths a year in Great Britain, with a tighter still standard offering further dramatic reductions.

In 2018 the TUC warned the UK was failing to take the action necessary to protect workers and criticised its failure to regulate diesel exhaust fumes as a cause of occupational cancer.

Unite warned in 2017 that diesel exhaust exposures were a ‘ticking time bomb’, as it launched a diesel emissions exposure register. A GMB alert said as a result of high diesel exhaust fume pollution levels “street cleaners, refuse workers, parking enforcement staff, utility workers, police community support workers and others are particularly exposed to such pollutants.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated in 2012 that there are 605 deaths a year in Great Britain from diesel engine exhaust related lung cancer.

However, a 2019 report from Hazards magazine noted that the real UK diesel-related occupational lung cancer toll could be over 1,700 deaths per year, more than 1,000 more deaths each year than the official HSE estimate.

The Utrecht study would indicate enforcing the EU standard would save over 300 lives a year in Great Britain from lung cancer alone.

HSE has opted not to introduce a workplace exposure limit for DEE. The Hazards report warned HSE’s failure to impose a workplace limit was the result of pressure from industry-financed groups.

Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace, HSE, 2012. IARC Monographs – volume 105, Diesel and gasoline engine exhausts and some nitroarenes,  IARC, 2012.
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(2), pages 172-7, February 2014 (first published online 22 November 2013).
The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain: Lung cancer, HSE, 2012.
Fuming feature, Diesel out prevention factsheet and Die diesel die pin-up-at-work poster. Hazards 144, October-December 2018.
Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018. Unite diesel emissions register.

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