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The International Agency for Research on Cancer announced on June 12, 2012, that decades of evidence showed diesel exhaust fumes are as dangerous to people's health as plutonium. This is not an exaggeration of the World Health Organization body's statement or the risks faced by individuals who breathe in air saturated by the components of burnt diesel fuel.

Specifically, the IARC added diesel exhaust to the list of Group I carcinogens. Cancer-causing items in Group I include arsenic, asbestos, benzene, coal dust and emissions, ultraviolet radiation (especially from tanning beds), X-rays and, yes, plutonium.

According to IARC's diesel exhaust risk working group chairman Dr. Christopher Portier, “The scientific evidence was compelling and [our] conclusion was unanimous: Diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans.”

As a personal injury and wrongful death attorney based in Virginia (VA), I have represented rail employees who developed lung cancer, mesothelioma and other occupational illnesses while working for railroad corporations such as CSX and Norfolk Southern. In one case, my client, who had been a CSX brakeman and trackman for decades, died of lung cancer brought on by prolonged, heavy exposure to diesel exhaust while his lawsuit worked its way through the court. His widow received an $8.6 million jury award.

I recently wrote about a few of the long-term, peer-reviewed research studies IARC members reviewed when reaching their definitive conclusion that exposure to diesel fumes puts people's health and lives at great risk. I've also written about efforts by companies that make extensive use of diesel engines in confined and closed spaces, such as mining corporations and railroads, to block the implementation of workers' protections.

I won't go into detail on those points again here, but I will note that the classification of diesel fumes as a known cause of cancer and lung diseases should raise concerns among all railroad engineers, conductors, mechanics and rail yard employees. Working for a company like CSX or NS can be made safer if railroads increase their use of electric locomotives in rail yards, develop and deploy more efficient diesel engines and ensure all employees have access to and use protective equipment. Railroads need to make those work site safety upgrades as quickly as possible.


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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