New research shows how diesel fumes damage our lungs

May 26, 2017

You may have heard a growing clamour in the news about the harm that the nation’s diesel fleet is doing to our health.

Now the Daily Mail report that scientists have uncovered exactly how diesel fumes cause damage to our respiratory systems. In a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, an Imperial College-led research team examined the effect of particles in diesel fumes on lung tissue.

These particles – also known as the soot content – can account for 60% to 80% of the exhaust fumes. The precise amount will depend on fuel and engine type.

The study found that while the core of the particles is composed of carbon, the surface has a layer of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). This layer is dangerous.

Because the particles are so small, they trick the body into thinking they are natural molecules when entering the lungs. Once in the lungs they trip nerve receptors and cause them to misfire. In turn, this can cause asthma attacks, breathlessness and coughing. While it affects people with pre-existing respiratory conditions more, it still has an impact on anyone who breathes them in.

40,000 deaths per year – More must be done

Even before this research, air pollution has been attributed to causing up to 40,000 deaths in the UK per year. Exposure to vehicle exhaust fumes is also known to heighten the risk of cancer

Diesel fumes in the workplace

Diesel fumes are, of course, an issue in busy city centres and for people who live near main roads.

But some workplaces will be especially prone to the effects of them. When diesel engines are running in buildings, the confined space means very limited dilution of the fumes will occur.

If proper local exhaust ventilation (LEV) is not in place, workers will be exposed to diesel fumes at much higher levels. This puts lives at risk and opens up the risk of prosecution to employers from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). So any exposure must be reduced to a level that is ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable).

Many modern engines are fitted with catalytic converters or other systems which filter out the particulate (or soot), however they do not remove the harmful gases that are making so many headlines.

Is it common practice for vehicles to be started up indoors in your workplace? Consider that the diesel engine will be producing more harmful substances whilst they are running cold, as opposed to once they have had a chance to warm up on the road. Is this being accounted for in the protective measures?

Workplaces at heightened risk from diesel fumes

The types of workplaces at extra risk from diesel fumes include:

  • Garages and car dealerships
  • MOT bays and car servicing workshops
  • Railway engine sheds
  • Airports
  • Fire stations
  • Military installations and repair shops

Other areas at higher risk could include tunnels and underground or multi-storey carparks.

How can workplaces be protected from the harmful effects of diesel fumes?

It is the legal responsibility of the employer to mitigate the serious danger of diesel fumes. This obligation is governed by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).

Under COSHH, the employer must undertake a risk assessment relating to the diesel fumes (and any other hazardous substances) and either prevent or adequately control the risk. It is essential that the fumes are captured at source using a suitable LEV. This kind of solution could involve:

  • Rail systems
  • Exhaust hose reels
  • Simple flexible hose systems
  • Sometimes, something unique to your premises may be required.

Experts in diesel fume extraction

People who work in an environment where they are exposed to diesel fumes face huge health risks if the fumes are not extracted properly. This new research only goes to demonstrate the dangers further. Who knows what else scientists may uncover about the effects of diesel fumes in the future.

Vent Tech is one of the UK’s most respected LEV specialists and are expert in designing and installing ventilation systems that remove harmful diesel fumes. If you would like to find out more about how we can help you or to get a quote, call the team on 01179 712 163.