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 firstname.lastname@example.org.