Diesel fuel exhaust from vehicles can pollute the air with harmful chemicals.
What are diesel fuel and exhaust?
Diesel fuel is a petroleum product that is used in diesel engines in some automobiles, generators, light-duty and heavy-duty trucks, and railroad locomotives. It is a mixture of petroleum compounds and is less expensive to produce than gasoline.
Diesel exhaust is a mixture of gases and tiny particles. This exhaust contains carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur compounds, formaldehyde, benzene, volatile organic compounds, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), methanol, and other gases. Greenhouse gases released by this exhaust affect climate change.
You can be exposed to diesel fuel if you breathe air that has been contaminated with diesel exhaust or vapors or if you drink or swim in water that has been contaminated with diesel fuel from a spill or leaking underground storage tank.
At work, you can be exposed to diesel fuel, diesel fuel vapors, and diesel exhaust if you are a truck or forklift driver, railroad worker, mine worker, auto mechanic, vehicle maintenance worker, firefighter, farm worker, lumberjack, trucking company worker, toll booth collector, or worker at a facility where diesel-powered equipment is used.
You can also be exposed to diesel exhaust if you work in a tunnel, bus garage, parking garage, bridge, loading dock, facility where diesel-powered equipment is used, or in or near areas where vehicles with diesel engines are used, stored, or maintained.
Diesel exhaust particulates are listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Fourteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because occupational exposure to diesel exhaust particulates has been associated with elevated lung cancer rates.
Long-term exposure to diesel exhaust can cause chronic respiratory symptoms such as persistent cough and mucous, bronchitis, and reduced lung capacity. Long-term exposure to diesel fuel vapors can cause kidney damage and lower the blood’s ability to clot. Swallowing diesel oil can cause collapse, rapid low blood pressure, and loss of vision.
In combination with other cancer-causing substances, such as cigarette smoke, welding fumes, and asbestos, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.
If you have asthma, emphysema, heart disease, or allergies, exposure to diesel exhaust can worsen those symptoms.
Short-term exposure to diesel exhaust can irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs. It can cause light-headedness, feeling "high," headache, heartburn, weakness, numbness, tingling extremities, chest tightness, wheezing, coughing, nausea, and vomiting.
Short-term exposure to diesel fuel vapors can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, eye irritation, increased blood pressure, headache, light-headedness, loss of appetite, poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating.
Swallowing diesel oil can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, vomiting blood, swollen throat, burning of the food pipe, irritated skin, and severe pain or burning in the throat, nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to diesel fuel or diesel exhaust, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Clean Diesel (Environmental Protection Agency)
Diesel Exhaust (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
Diesel Exhaust (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)
Diesel Exhaust in the United States (Environmental Protection Agency) (PDF — 409.24 KB)
Diesel Fuel (US Energy Information Administration)
Diesel Fuel. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Diesel Fuel. Household Products Database (National Library of Medicine)
Fuel Oil No. 2. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Fuel Oils. ToxFAQs (includes diesel) (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Last Updated: April 19, 2017