Diesel pollution health impacts

Diesel exhaust puts healthy people at risk for respiratory disease and worsens the symptoms of people with health problems such as asthma, heart disease, and lung disease. It contains fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies diesel exhaust as carcinogenic to humans based on evidence that exposure is associated with increased risk for lung cancer. In Washington, 70 percent of the cancer risk from airborne pollutants is from diesel exhaust.

How diesel pollution affects your health

Diesel exhaust contains fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. In warm weather, hot sunlight bakes nitrogen oxides together with other pollutants which forms harmful smog, also known as ground-level ozone.

Ground-level ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue and damages peoples' health. You might think of it as sunburn on your lungs. Breathing ground-level ozone can lead to several types of health problems such as:

  • Coughing, throat, and chest irritation:
    High levels of ground-level ozone can irritate your respiratory system. Symptoms are mild and usually only last for a few hours after you've been exposed to it. However, ozone can continue to harm your lungs even after symptoms disappear.
  • Difficulty breathing and lung damage:
    Because of ground-level ozone’s effect on lung function, it can make deep breathing difficult, especially during exercise. Research has shown that exposure can also damage the lining of your lungs.
  • Worsening asthma symptoms:
    If you suffer from asthma, being exposed to high levels of ground-level ozone can trigger asthma attacks.

How you can protect yourself

  • Keep an eye on local air quality by checking our monitors.
  • Avoid exercising near high traffic areas.
  • Avoid heavy transportation routes.
  • Don't drive a diesel vehicle.
  • Avoid living near freight routes, warehouse districts, ports, or rail yards.
  • Use a HEPA filter in your home.
  • Wear an N95 mask when air quality is poor.
  • Close your car windows and vents and set the air to recirculate.

Diesel pollution in Washington

Over four million people in Washington live and work near diesel exhaust. You can help reduce greenhouse gases and cut down on diesel exhaust by:

  • Reducing idling.
  • Using cleaner fuels.
  • Installing equipment to clean up diesel exhaust (retrofitting).
  • Replacing older engines with new, cleaner ones.

2014 map diesel NOx emission per area, by census tract

2014 map showing the states regions with the highest exposure to NOx from diesel emissions. 
View the text version of this map.