Is this really rocket science?

This month I had intended to bring you more information concerning proposals for increased habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl.

nfortunately, the transcript of the May 21st Congressional Field Hearing is not yet available to the public. I will have more detailed information in a later column, but for now I will talk about diesel fumes and a recent position taken by the World Health Organization (W.H.O) and announced on all major television networks. Like so many other “health warnings”, one must read between the lines to reveal the actual core of the message and weigh the intended results. My opinion follows. Draw your own conclusions!

The brief announcement I heard was on NBC Evening News, wherein a statement from researchers for the World Health Organization linked breathing diesel fumes to lung cancer. While diesel fumes have been classified by three federal agencies in the U.S. as a “likely carcinogen,” a “potential occupational carcinogen” and “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” I believe the W.H.O. is stirring the environmental pot. Sound bites on the news are rarely complete and accurate statements, with most taken out of context. While I have little doubt that heavy exposure to any chemical substance can cause a number of illnesses or reactions, I wondered about the intensity of the pronouncement made.

In the course of my lifetime, I’ve known a raft of people who have regularly worked around diesel and machinery that drinks it up like there’s no tomorrow. How many of those people have been diagnosed with lung cancer as a result? I can’t think of any off hand, but let’s say “in the interest of science” there may have been two or three. In my estimation, that’s a low percentage when I think of the men who have worked in the woods all their lives, been around a variety of diesel burning heavy equipment or driven log trucks for forty, fifty or even sixty years. I’d call that heavy exposure. Add to that number, commercial fishers, miners, heavy equipment mechanics or operators, road builders, truck drivers, refinery workers, oil field roughnecks or those isolated on ocean oil rigs or tankers, shipping crews, port employees, farmers, factory workers . . . the list is endless and if there is a medical crisis, why now? Are there more incidents or is more research being done? Or, is there an accelerated push toward a greener climate?

W.H.O. based their findings on extreme exposure to exhaust particularly among workers in poor countries, where diesel driven mechanisms belch heavy clouds of smoke, filling the air with sulfurous particulates. It acknowledges the U.S., along with other wealthy nations have modernized diesel fueled equipment to burn cleaner than even a decade ago and regulations provide for limits of the amount of diesel fumes/exposure present in the environment in compliance with the Clean Air Act. However, some are labeling the finding to be as dangerous as arsenic or asbestos toxins and the American Cancer Society is likely to follow the lead of the World Health Organization declaring diesel as a carcinogen.

My gut tells me the impact of the recent research will double-down on the trucking industry, forcing truck owners to retrofit equipment to further reduce diesel exhaust, purchase newer equipment in order to comply with more restrictive standards or ... close businesses. That’s a pretty harsh statement, but we’ve seen it happen before when independents are forced to meet stricter “industry standards”. Sadly, mega-trucking fleets will continue as if this was a blip on the radar but it is the smaller independent truckers who will pay the price.

The lead researcher claims, diesel exposure is a far greater lung cancer risk than passive cigarette smoking, but a much smaller risk than smoking two packs a day. This being said, the EPA, OSHA and the National Toxicology Program of the Institutes of Health have rated diesel as a potential, not proven, carcinogen.

Low sulfur diesel was introduced in 2000 and mandatory by 2006; roughly a quarter of America’s fleets were built after that date and on average replaced every 12-15 years which should account for fewer toxins in the air than the boogey-man announcement hints.
The timing of the announcement leads me to believe this will be a campaign issue for both parties. The looming shadow however, is the possibility of the research being used against the trucking industry with a new level of forced regulations and rulings added to the ever-growing compliance list in the march to “go-green”. I think the recent study is skewed more toward environmental conscientiousness than to health concerns overall. The U.S. has been burning diesel, in one form or another, industrially for over a century and until now, no one has heard a death knell toll.

Lead cancer researcher, Dr. Debra T. Silverman, says her study “...clearly establishes that the more a worker is exposed to diesel, the greater his cancer risk...” Following that line of thought, I would have to say, “Debbie, ...standing on the freeway poses a greater risk of being hit by a motor vehicle than standing in a cornfield!” So is the finding more closely related to rocket science or is the sky falling?

by / Sherrie Bond
(Sherrie Bond serves as Director of the Northwest Log Truckers’ Cooperative. She can be reached via email at