WHO study links cancer to diesel emissions

Findings of a study published today by a World Health Organization body have found  diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans.


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), today (June 12) classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), “based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer.”

The announcement follows a week-long meeting in Lyon, France which looked at classification lists for causes of cancers under the heading “IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans.”

Diesel exhaust linked to cancer in WHO study

A statement from the IARC explained that in 1998, IARC classified diesel exhaust as “probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)”. An advisory group which reviews and recommends future priorities for the IARC Monographs Programe had recommended diesel exhaust as a high priority for re-evaluation since 1998.

Mounting concern

The IARC claimed there has been mounting concern about the cancer-causing potential of diesel exhaust, particularly based on findings in epidemiological studies of workers exposed in various settings. And, it said this was re-emphasised by the publication in March 2012 of the results of a large US National Cancer Institute/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of occupational exposure to such emissions in underground miners, which showed an increased risk of death from lung cancer in exposed workers.

The IARC statement continued: “The scientific evidence was reviewed thoroughly by the Working Group and overall it was concluded that there was sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogeneity of diesel exhaust.”

The Working Group found that diesel exhaust is a cause of lung cancer (sufficient evidence) and also noted a positive association (limited evidence) with an increased risk of bladder cancer (group 1). And, the Working Group concluded that “gasoline exhaust” was possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), a finding unchanged from the previous evaluation in 1989.

Large populations

In terms of public health, the IARC pointed out that large populations are exposed to diesel exhaust in everyday life, “whether through their occupation or through the ambient air. People are exposed not only to motor vehicle exhausts but also to exhausts from other diesel engines, including from other modes of transport (e.g. diesel trains and ships) and from power generators.”

Looking ahead, the IARC said that given its “rigorous, independent assessment of the science, governments and other decision-makers have a valuable evidence-base on which to consider environmental standards for diesel exhaust emissions and to continue to work with the engine and fuel manufacturers towards those goals.”

The statement went on to say: “Increasing environmental concerns over the past two decades have resulted in regulatory action in North America, Europe and elsewhere with successively tighter emission standards for both diesel and gasoline engines. There is a strong interplay between standards and technology — standards drive technology and new technology enables more stringent standards.

“For diesel engines, this required changes in the fuel such as marked decreases in sulfur content, changes in engine design to burn diesel fuel more efficiently and reductions in emissions through exhaust control technology.

The study found that populations are exposed to diesel exhaust from a variety of sources

“However, while the amount of particulates and chemicals are reduced with these changes, it is not yet clear how the quantitative and qualitative changes may translate into altered health effects; research into this question is needed. In addition, existing fuels and vehicles without these modifications will take many years to be replaced, particularly in less developed countries, where regulatory measures are currently also less stringent. It is notable that many parts of the developing world lack regulatory standards, and data on the occurrence and impact of diesel exhaust are limited.”


Dr Christopher Portier, chairman of the IARC working Group, concluded that “The scientific evidence was compelling and the Working Group’s conclusion was unanimous: diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans.”

Dr Portier continued: “Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide.”

Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Program, indicated that “The main studies that led to this conclusion were in highly exposed workers. However, we have learned from other carcinogens, such as radon, that initial studies showing a risk in heavily exposed occupational groups were followed by positive findings for the general population. Therefore, actions to reduce exposures should encompass workers and the general population.”


Dr Christopher Wild, Director, IARC, said that “while IARC’s remit is to establish the evidence-base for regulatory decisions at national and international level, today’s conclusion sends a strong signal that public health action is warranted. This emphasis is needed globally, including among the more vulnerable populations in developing countries where new technology and protective measures may otherwise take many years to be adopted.” 

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