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| Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Breathing in diesel exhaust fumes has long been recognized as a health hazard in rail yards and train locomotives. Certainly, any Amtrak, CSX or Norfolk Southern conductor, engineer or carman knows that even a short period spent working in atmosphere thick with fumes produced by diesel-fueled engines irritates their throats, nasal passages and lungs, and that years and decades on the job has left them or several of the co-workers with health problems ranging from asthma to cancer.

Scientists and health researchers have only recently begun to understand exactly how regular and repeated exposures to diesel fumes damages people’s health. Analyses of the chemical in engine exhaust have revealed which components produce which harmful effects, and as those revelations are reached, federal health officials and corporations whose employees face dangers of developing cancer or other illnesses from diesel fume exposure issue warnings to those warnings.

I’ve provided this general introduction to rail worker’s risks from diesel fuel exhaust fumes specifically so I can share the news that formaldehyde, one of the constituents of diesel fumes, has been added to the official U.S. government list of known carcinogens. On June 10, 2011, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences announced that "individuals with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers." The potentially fatal diseases linked to excessive formaldehyde exposure include cancers of the upper throat, which doctors call the nasopharnyx, sinuses and nasal passages. Too much formaldehyde can also produce a cancer of the white blood cells called myeloid leukemia.

To its credit, CSX waited no time before updating some of its safety rule book to include the new information about potential harms from formaldehyde. I hope for their employees’ sake, Amtrak, NS and every other railroad in the United that runs diesel-powered locomotives also updates it operating manuals and training materials sooner rather than later. Diesel does power nearly every train engine currently used by interstate passenger and freight railroads, so all railroad workers — especially, the conductors, engineers and carmen who work aboard, operate and repair the diesel engines — should be alerted.

Read more about how on-the-job exposures to toxic substances and radiation can cause cancers later in life for railroad employees:

Formaldehyde is not the only chemical rail workers need to be concerned about, though. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration has identified numerous known and suspected carcinogens in diesel engine exhaust fumes besides formaldehyde, including benzene and compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are most commonly referred to as PAHs.

According to industrial hygienists and other workplace safety experts who have provided detailed reports in FELA occupational disease lawsuits I have handled in Virginia and Carolina courts and elsewhere, there are more than a dozen carcinogens in diesel exhaust fumes. In fact, cigarette smoke and diesel fumes contain many of the same toxic substances. One unfortunate thing this means is that a railroad worker with histories of both smoking and diesel fume exposures stands a much greater risk of developing risk for developing cancer than does someone who has never smoked nor worked around diesel-powered engines.

While railroads facing an occupational disease claim filed under the provisions of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act cannot automatically have the suit dismissed because of the plaintiff is or was a smoker, the company will almost definitely try to convince jury members that the cigarette smoke caused the illness. I’ve seen this time after time during my nearly 25 years of representing sickened rail workers. Now that strong evidence exists that certain types of cancer are more likely for people exposed to formaldehyde exists, railroads will find it that much harder to limit or avoid their liability for being negligent in providing as safe a workplace as possible.


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, 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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