The Cancer-Causing Agents in Diesel Exhaust

diesel exhaust cancer

Diesel locomotive spewing a cloud of smoke

Why do long-term exposures to diesel exhaust cause cancer and leukemia?  Because diesel engine exhaust is a mixture of several toxic substances, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, unburned and partially burned hydrocarbons (e.g., aromatic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), soot, elemental carbon, particle-bound organic carbon, metals, and nitrated compounds.  A number of the toxic substances found in diesel engine exhaust are “known carcinogens.” Toxic substances found in engine exhausts that have been evaluated for carcinogenicity to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (IARC 2014) are outlined below.  These substances have been classified by IARC as Group 1 (the agent is carcinogenic to humans), Group 2A (the agent is probably carcinogenic to humans), and Group 2B (the agent is possibly carcinogenic to humans).  See Table 1 for detailed information.

So, when you consider that diesel exhaust is composed of a bunch of different known or probable carcinogens, it should come as no surprise that the scientific and medical fields have finally deemed diesel exhaust a carcinogen.

Table 1
Toxic Substances Identified in Diesel and Gasoline Engine Exhaust
and Their Respective IARC Carcinogenic Classifications
Agent Name CAS No. Classification (Group)
Antimony compounds (Trioxide) 1309-64-4 Group 2B
Arsenic and inorganic arsenic compounds 007440-38-2 Group 1
Beryllium and beryllium compounds 007440-41-7 Group 1
Cadmium and cadmium compounds 007440-43-9 Group 1
Chromium (VI) 018540-29-9 Group 1
Cobalt and cobalt compounds 007440-48-4 Group 2B
Lead compounds Inorganic Group 2B
Nickel (Metallic) Group 2B
Nickel Compounds Group 1
Organic Chemicals
1,3-Butadiene 106-99-0 Group 1
Acetaldehyde 75-07-0 Group 2B
Benzene 71-43-2 1 Group 1
Bis(ethylhexyl)phthalate 117-81-7 Group 2B
Ethylbenzene 100-41-4 Group 2B
Formaldehyde 50-00-0 Group 1
Propylene oxide 75-56-9 Group 2B
Halogenated and Other Chemicals
Dioxin/Dibenzofurans 1746-01-6 (TCDD)* Group 1
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Benz[a]anthracene 56-55-3 Group 2B
Benzo[b]fluoranthene 205-99-2 Group 2B
Benzo[k]fluoranthene 207-08-9 Group 2B
Benzo[a]pyrene 5-32-8 Group 1
Chrysene 218-01-9 Group 2B
Dibenz[a,h]anthracene 53-70-3 Group 2A
3,7-Dinitrofluoranthene 105735-71-5 Group 2B
3,9-Dinitrofluoranthene 22506-53-2 Group 2B
1,3-Dinitropyrene 75321-20-9 Group 2B
1,6-Dinitropyrene 42397-64-8 Group 2B
1,8-Dinitropyrene 42397-64-9 Group 2B
Indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene 193-39-5 Group 2B
Naphthalene 91-20-3 Group 2B
3-Nitrobenzanthrone 17 117-34-9 Group 2B
6-Nitrochrysene 7496-02-8 Group 2A
2-Nitrofluorene 607-57-8 Group 2B
1-Nitropyrene 5522-43-0 Group 2A
4-Nitropyrene 57835-92-4 Group 2B
Styrene 100-42-5 Group 2B
*TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin); Table 2 adapted from Table 1.2 in IARC Monograph 105, 2014

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