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Breathing dangerous diesel fumes

Every time you stand outside your rig when it’s running, you experience an occupational hazard – diesel fumes – a recognized toxic substance.

In recent years the composition of diesel fuel has become less toxic and diesel engines have become more efficient; however, inhaling diesel fumes over an extended period of time can still lead to acute or short-term health effects.

Diesel fuel, like gasoline, is a hydrocarbon-based fuel. Short-term exposure to diesel fumes, such as when you fuel your truck or clean up a small spill, can temporarily irritate your eyes, skin or respiratory tract and/or cause dizziness, headache or nausea. However, longer-term exposure may lead to more serious health concerns, such as lung cancer, kidney damage, and increased risk of heart attack.

Diesel exhaust, a specific type of diesel fume, has more negative health effects than regular diesel fumes. Short-term exposure can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and lungs; it can cause coughs, bronchitis, headaches, lightheadedness and nausea.

Lengthy exposure to diesel exhaust may increase your risk of developing asthma, a variety of lung diseases, heart disease, as well as brain and immune system issues. In studies using human volunteers, exposure to diesel exhaust particles made people with allergies more susceptible to the materials to which they were allergic, like dust and pollen. Exposure may also trigger lung inflammation, aggravating chronic respiratory symptoms and increasing the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

The 40 different toxic compounds found in diesel exhaust can cause immediate and serious health concerns.
A complex mixture of fine particles and gases, diesel exhaust contains both unburned diesel fuel and particulates (soot). The primary dangerous substances found in diesel exhaust include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, and other hazardous gases.

Diesel particulate matter (DPM), sometimes called diesel exhaust particles (DEP), is the term used for the solid or liquid particles the exhaust carries into the air. Some particles are visible as soot or smoke, but most are fine particulate matter, which is composed of very small objects floating in the air, like dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Ninety per cent of diesel particulate matter is considered fine particulate matter (less than 2.5 microns in diameter).

Diesel particulate also contains diesel soot and aerosols, including: ash particulates, metallic abrasion particles, silicates and sulfates. Since the fine particles are so small, you easily inhale them deeply into your lungs where they are quickly transported into your bloodstream. So, people with existing heart or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory problems are most sensitive to the health effects of these fine particles.

As well, the particulates’ rough surfaces catch and carry other harmful, environmental toxins along with them as you breathe them deeply into your lungs. Inhaling this particulate matter may aggravate asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and/or cause coughing and difficult or painful breathing, decreased lung function, weakening of the heart, heart attacks and/or premature death.

Carbon monoxide, another component of diesel exhaust, reduces your blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to your organs, damaging these organs. Extremely high concentrations cause death. Nitrogen oxide, also found in diesel exhaust, covers a group of highly reactive gases composed of various amounts of nitrogen and oxygen.

Low levels of nitrogen oxide can irritate your eyes, throat, lungs and cause coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. However, breathing high concentrations can trigger more serious symptoms like rapid burning, spasms and swelling of the throat and upper respiratory tract, reduced oxygen in your tissues and a build up of fluid in your lungs.

Nitrogen oxides damage lung tissue, lower your body’s resistance to respiratory infections and can increase the severity of chronic lung diseases, such as asthma.

Since studies show that people who work around diesel equipment, including truck drivers, are more likely to develop these health issues than workers not exposed to diesel emissions, it is important to take precautions. Even though you may not be able to avoid fumes altogether, you reduce your risk.

Avoid breathing diesel fumes as much as possible. If you must idle your truck in an enclosed area, such as a service bay or warehouse, keep the idling time as short as possible. As well, be sure the ventilation system is working efficiently. When available, use local exhaust ventilation with intake and exhaust fans, since this is most effective. Use a tailpipe or stack exhaust, too.

However, if no local exhaust ventilation is available, avoid running your rig inside. When necessary, use general ventilation practices: open doors and windows, use floor fans and/or roof vents and fans. Since general ventilation distributes exhaust throughout the inside of the building is less effective, keep idling time to a minimum.

Most people are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes daily, but your exposure is higher.

Take these precautions and let your health risks disappear into thin air.


Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant, and she can be reached at

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20 Comments » for Breathing dangerous diesel fumes
  1. Dennis says:

    I studied Bulldozer,Font end Loader,and Excavator in a training college 6 years ago now and was a 6 month course.
    3 years ago my heart stopped and I needed to get a pacemaker installed
    While at school I had to refuel a Bulldozer and Excavator with diesel and not paying close enough attention wasted fuel over my work boots
    Just before school ended I felt off balance just walking so I seen a doctor who got me to see a Neurologist after A CT Scan and a MRI nothing showed to cause my Cerebellar(the part of my brain controlling things like vision and balance,basically all coordination)
    its even mentioned by the MAYO Clinic in the same family as MS
    would my exposure to diesel and its fumes cause my Ataxia? Its 2016 now and its getting worse I fell 4 times and broke a cofee table in half and on another occasion went through a wall! I now need a walker to walk at all.

  2. Sharon says:

    I’ve been diagnosed with asthma, last year they put me on a school bus that had really bad smells. At first I thought it was a exhaust leak told my supervisor and wrote the bus up for repair. After 3 days I went to the school nurse then to urgent care. School jumped right on this and I got a letter from worksmans comp saying that this did not cause this. I asked to see the work orders on the bus and was denied. After reading what you wrote and the information above are they really sure because Iam am really sure it has. I ‘be been driving a school bus for 171/2 years and a few years ago I was out on night trips in the freezing cold and sitting on the bus with it running for hours. My breathing has gotten better with the help of Doctors but I have never been as sick as I have been since February 2014.
    I plan to print this article and forward it to the workmen comp people and so to our person in charge at the schools main office.

  3. Stephenie says:

    I work in environment that runs desiel inside that ,I could taste it,is went to see my doctor about the issue ,I am even apart of the health safety, I found its about production but not your life health. Please take you health serious ,I expossed but what the harm and long term effects?

  4. dan says:

    hi im a owner of a 2009 vw tdi and driver. am i at any risk since i am inside the vehicle or am i still inhaling harmful effects?

    • Basilio Mendoza says:

      I drive a 2012 VW TDI and I noticed the my nails have gotten dark. I already X everything out. I do not smoke, drink or do any kind of drugs. I wonder if anyone else out there might be experiencing something similar. I stopped driving my car and I feel like a different person. No headaches, dizziness, vomiting or tired!
      If you are experiencing somthing similar, it might be your car. I have 150, 000 miles on my car.
      Basilio Mendoza here is my email:

  5. godfrey says:

    ive been exposed to diesel fume for years now at my place of employee doesn’t care about my exposure to the fumes or that of my co workers.can I sue for damages later on should I get sick ?

  6. K packer says:

    I see more smoke coming out the back of buses are they going to change these to petrol? Surely there must be a way of cleaning fumes up its just another big hit against deisel car drivers ( about time we stood up together)

  7. David says:

    I have working as a petrol attended for two years now,the problem something smelling at my throat no matter how I try to brush my mouth every day it can’t go away ,especially in the morning something comes like small guava seed that smelling badly,is it petrol all what?

  8. Susie says:

    The weather has been quite cold here at night this past week, and each evening I light the diesel fireplace. While lighting it I blow on the kindler to facilitate the spark to cause the fuel to ignite. I have been taking in huge gulps of air to do so. This week I have had shortness of breath often. It got so severe that I went to the doctor since it was difficult to breathe with the least exertion. I was advised to try heating without the diesel to see if the problem would go away. Am I the only one to experience this problem, or is it just not public knowledge?

  9. John O'Donovan says:

    I am a 72 year old Diesel mechanic, often working in poorly ventilated garages. I am still working at the same trade, I do not have Copd or any related sympthoms and neither do any of those mechanics that I still know.
    Some have died of course ; heart failure, lukemia, diabetis, are the caused bt diesel fumes ????

  10. Dillon Supor says:

    This issue must be addressed NOW! Any truck driver or heavy equipment operator that has been doing these jobs for several years KNOWS about these issues. Volvo class 8 tractors (18 wheelers) are one of the most serious offenders. We have had dozens of these trucks repeatedly go back to the shop to repair exhaust leaks and excessive engine gas blow by. These leaks occur directly under the cabin fresh air intake, and is blown into the cab, causing the drivers to breathe the noxious fumes. Many other trucks have similar issues.

    It is common knowledge that most company managers will threaten drivers with termination if they complain about it or attempt to make a report. Company mechanics are much more sympathetic and have come up with a few viable repairs. BUT, not enough operators or truck drivers are voicing or reporting these problems. Drivers fear losing their jobs and livelihood. Drivers have even died while sleeping in their trucks due to carbon monoxide poisoning. There are lawyers that have successfully won lawsuits, and Courts that have awarded damages because it is a medically known fact that these poison fumes cause permanent harm and cause cancer.

    You can report issues to the U.S. D.O.T. but you know how that goes. And there are laws that can prevent your employer from terminating you for safety reasons (see “Surface Transportation Assistance Act).

    If you need proof, just go to any large truck stop and walk around where the trucks are fueling. Not only will you smell the diesel fuel, but you will smell something MUCH worse…the fumes from their leaky exhaust and blow-by engine gasses. And these guys are forced to live in these conditions for weeks at a time in most cases.

  11. thomas Ahr says:

    I,m new to oil delivery I was on top of aoil truck and my trainer told me to watch the top so I did not realizing how close Iwas to the fumes now I AM GETTING chest pains and feel very tired.I WAS BEING TRAINED. Not sure what I should do

  12. William says:

    I’m a heavy equipment operater at port been working there 17 yrs with daily heavy exposure from trucks ,cranes ships ,trains. I’m now been having numerous health issues chronic fatigue, dizzy spells ,ear pressure ,balance issues eyes rolling sideways & up & down vertigo starting to fill brain fog constantly. Trying to get a brain scan. Can disel exhaust cause nerve & or brain damage

  13. Jerry says:

    when ever I get close and smell diesel fumes my stomach goes into knots immediately and feel very nauseous, no one has to tell me it’s not good for anyone!!! just look it up for your self if you want to live a little longer, nice we still have a chose.

  14. Private says:

    I have been operating a 2009 Frieghtliner package delivery truck for about a year now, before that was a 2009 Workhorse. They both put off so much fumes it would come into the cargo area and horribly into the cab with me. Especially this Freightliner I am currently using, Ive kept the cargo door shut and opened both cab doors but it’s like it’s kicking the exhaust right out of the vents into my face even with them closed, nothing helps the ventilation, I have to drive over and hour in and back from my route to the office and recently now having to suffer in the cold by leaving the doors open at 65mph down the highway to get some kind of tiny relief because it doesn’t help much at all. The company refuses to do anything of course, they don’t care that I’ve mentioned it can cause horrible long term problems or death. It seems to only do it every now and then, sometimes it’s every other day and others it will go a couple weeks and be fine.

    Especially sickening that when I get into my car to go home all I can smell and taste is diesel, then get home where I have a little child and my wife complains I reek, I really don’t want them breathing it either. Even after I’m all cleaned up it’s like it’s trapped in my nose and it’s all I can smell and taste for dinner. Really afraid of dying. I already experience most of the side effects I’ve read. I told my wife if I do end up dying or something happens to me to make sure to go after the company and get an autopsy done to prove it was the fumes, and sue the hell out of them. I have it documented also with the company that this has been going on. Any suggestions?

  15. Ellen Joy says:

    I rent in a building in Alaska where these military guys keep there trucks runs 24/7- I’ve noticed lately my eyes burn -and my muscles and joints are so stiff I’ve been unable to exercise in the house or at the gym.

    I’ve been on anti-biotics for the 2nd time this holiday season. If the office doesn’t make them turn off there trucks,can someone at least make them move it?

  16. Sue Berkosky says:

    My brother puts diesel fuel on wood to light woodburner. His clothes reek of oil. These fumes are inside house. This over years. He is now acting very lethargic and quiet. I’m very concerned.

  17. Monica says:

    My husband was a tractor trailer driver for 30 years. He passed away August 2017 from brain cancer. I believe he got brain cancer from being exposed to the diesel fumes for all those years

  18. Harold says:

    Retired off the road,health reason.been in the hospital ER many times while on the road driving,blood pressure issue, lung issues, have 3 stints now.I complained about fumes in the cab.

  19. kevin Nichols says:

    I was just wondering how this affects kidneys. I was a mechanic for 25 years, working on buses in a very poorly ventilated shop and storage area, I have now been diagnosed with failing kidneys. Could this be caused by exhaust?

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