Lung cancer in railroad workers exposed to diesel exhaust

Environ Health Perspect. 2004 Nov;112(15):1539-43. doi: 10.1289/ehp.7195.


Diesel exhaust has been suspected to be a lung carcinogen. The assessment of this lung cancer risk has been limited by lack of studies of exposed workers followed for many years. In this study, we assessed lung cancer mortality in 54,973 U.S. railroad workers between 1959 and 1996 (38 years). By 1959, the U.S. railroad industry had largely converted from coal-fired to diesel-powered locomotives. We obtained work histories from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, and ascertained mortality using Railroad Retirement Board, Social Security, and Health Care Financing Administration records. Cause of death was obtained from the National Death Index and death certificates. There were 43,593 total deaths including 4,351 lung cancer deaths. Adjusting for a healthy worker survivor effect and age, railroad workers in jobs associated with operating trains had a relative risk of lung cancer mortality of 1.40 (95% confidence interval, 1.30-1.51). Lung cancer mortality did not increase with increasing years of work in these jobs. Lung cancer mortality was elevated in jobs associated with work on trains powered by diesel locomotives. Although a contribution from exposure to coal combustion products before 1959 cannot be excluded, these results suggest that exposure to diesel exhaust contributed to lung cancer mortality in this cohort. Key words: diesel exhaust, lung cancer, occupational exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cause of Death
  • Coal
  • Cohort Studies
  • Death Certificates
  • Humans
  • Job Description
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Lung Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Railroads*
  • Registries / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retirement
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Vehicle Emissions / poisoning*


  • Coal
  • Vehicle Emissions