Exposure To Diesel Exhaust Linked To COPD Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

In a study of U.S. railroad workers, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital's (BWH) Channing Laboratory and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that individuals who were regularly exposed to diesel exhaust at work may have had an increased risk of dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These findings appear in the September 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal.

COPD is a lung disease characterized by obstructed airways, difficulty breathing and is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. "There has been minimal research on the relationship between exposure to diesel exhaust and non-malignant pulmonary disease," said Jaime E. Hart, ScD, Project Coordinator at BWH's Channing Laboratory. "These findings can help provide researchers with direction regarding future research on the effects of diesel exhaust in today's workplace."


The researchers compared the death certificates of male railroad workers with and without diesel exhaust exposure, aged 40 to 64 years in 1959, with10 to 20 years of prior railroad work experience. After calculating the likely smoking history for the workers, a major contributing factor to COPD, and noting whether COPD was listed as a primary or secondary cause of death, researchers derived what the effects of exposure to diesel exhaust had on the likelihood of dying from COPD. With each additional year of exposure to diesel exhaust at work, an individual's risk of dying from COPD increased by 2.1 percent.

Hart also explains,"Since the time period that the study investigated, the mid-twentieth century, technology and regulation have advanced. This study establishes a relationship between COPD mortality and diesel exhaust exposure in the workplace and encourages investigation of current trends in the locomotive and other industries where employees are regularly exposed to diesel exhaust."

The research was funded by grants provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.