Diesel Fumes and Industrial Disease


Just 3 years after the death of a 9 year old girl, her mother is taking legal action against the Greater London Authority to push investigations into their control of air pollution – which she believes contributed to her daughter's worsening asthma and subsequent death.

Air pollution controls are being challenged

Industrial Disease Solicitor Phillip Gower explains how the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah highlights the need for greater research into the effects that air pollution from diesel engines can have, and the necessity for all governing bodies - from businesses to local authorities - to ensure the health of the people in their care is well looked after.

Why are diesel engines used?

Diesel combustion is the predominant type of engine used in many industrial sectors, coming to the market in the 1950s. Gradually, diesel engines have moved into the mainstream, with slow but marked improvements in technologies.

Their use has been most prominent in the mining, construction, and transport industries.

The main reason for the introduction of diesel combustion was to efficiently power heavy duty equipment, vehicles, and hand held tools – this includes bulldozers, chainsaws, clearing saws and generators.

How harmful are diesel fumes, and why?

The long term effects of diesel fume inhalation have not been widely explored. From the studies there have been – such as those carried out on Swedish bus mechanics, German miners, and another on Swedish dock workers – the conclusions of these studies suggest that there is sufficient evidence to point towards the carcinogenic nature of diesel engine exhaust fumes.

This means there is an increased chance of cancer if you have prolonged exposure to these fumes.

The worrying issue is that each of these studies consistently highlighted the direct link between exposure to a diesel engine and certain type of illness such as:

  • Jeopardised lung function including persistent coughing, chest infection, industrial asthma, and even lung cancer
  • A much increased risk of urinary bladder cancer
  • Systemic or brain inflammation in the form of headaches, memory, or vision loss
  • Heart problems, such as persistent cardiovascular issues (including pulmonary clearance)

Could I be exposed at work and not know about it?

In short, the answer is yes – as with many industrial disease cases, the effects only manifest themselves after long periods of exposure.

In workplace settings where diesel engines are used, the most highly exposed people are miners and those in tunnel construction – where elemental carbon reaches levels of 100µg/m3 (microgrammes per cubic metre ).

Other professions where diesel-fume inhalation may be at dangerous levels are:

  • Dock workers
  • Train crews
  • Construction
  • Professional drivers

In the first instance if you are concerned about your health, it is important that you seek help from your GP, who will be able to give you more answers.

Phillip explains:

"Diesel fume cases are rather difficult to tackle as they are one of the most unexplored areas of Industrial Disease. For some clients, the process is not straight forward as it can be tricky to pin down exactly when the exposure has taken place.

If you are worried that an employer, or indeed in the case of Ella Kiss-Debrah, a local authority has been negligent in its duty of care, you have a legal right to hold them accountable for your ill health. Consequently, you could be due compensation.

In an ideal situation, early instruction on Industrial Disease cases is best, but at Simpson Millar we know that this isn't always the way things work. We proudly work with people at all stages of their diagnosis, and are glad to be able to help in a relatively unknown area of legal practice."

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