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Diesel exhaust is produced by the combustion (burning) of diesel fuel. The exhaust is a complex mixture of gases, vapours, aerosols, and particulate substances. The exact nature of the exhaust depends on a number of factors including the type of engine, how well serviced/maintained the engine is, type of fuel, type of oil, speed and load on the engine, and emission control systems.
Diesel exhaust may contain:
Diesel particulate matter (DPM) is primarily made up of soot particles, carbon, ash, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metallic abrasion particles, sulfates, and silicates. Almost all particulate emitted by diesel engines is respirable (PM <10 micron), with the majority of the particulates have diameters less than 1.0 micron.
Short term exposure to diesel exhaust can cause coughing, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Breathing in diesel exhaust can cause lung irritation and/or an allergic reaction causing asthma (wheezing and difficult breathing), or making pre-existing asthma worse. Other symptoms may include feeling lightheaded, headache, or nausea.
Long term exposure may lead to serious health effects. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), determining that exposure to diesel exhaust emissions increases the risk for lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer.
The most common way individuals are exposed is by breathing air that contains the diesel particulate matter. The fine and ultra fine particles are respirable, which means that the particles can avoid many of the human respiratory system defense mechanisms and enter deeply into the lung.
Workers may be at risk:
All jurisdictions in Canada have regulated occupational exposure limits . For diesel exhaust, these limits may apply to the specific component, or to diesel exhaust (as a whole), and/or may apply to specific industries (such as mining).
In the absence of such legislation, the "general duty clause" applies. This clause, common to all Canadian occupational health and safety legislation, states that an employer must provide a safe and healthy workplace. Making sure workers know the health effects of diesel exhaust, how to perform work safely, and precautions to take is, therefore, the employer’s duty.
In addition, as diesel exhaust is classified as a carcinogen, it is a good practice to keep exposures to carcinogens to a minimum.
The workplace should have a competent person (such as an occupational/industrial hygienist, safety professional, or others) conduct a risk assessment to determine the health risks from exposure, and to identify the necessary steps needed to control these risks. See the OSH Answers for more information on how to do a risk assessment.
Questions to investigate include:
This checklist is not complete. Be sure to investigate all relevant issues for your workplace or situation.
Various measures can help lower exposure to diesel exhaust. Workplaces may investigate the measures that work best in their situation. Control measures may include: