Background: Most studies of the association between diesel exhaust exposure and lung cancer suggest a modest, but consistent, increased risk. However, to our knowledge, no study to date has had quantitative data on historical diesel exposure coupled with adequate sample size to evaluate the exposure-response relationship between diesel exhaust and lung cancer. Our purpose was to evaluate the relationship between quantitative estimates of exposure to diesel exhaust and lung cancer mortality after adjustment for smoking and other potential confounders.
Methods: We conducted a nested case-control study in a cohort of 12 315 workers in eight non-metal mining facilities, which included 198 lung cancer deaths and 562 incidence density-sampled control subjects. For each case subject, we selected up to four control subjects, individually matched on mining facility, sex, race/ethnicity, and birth year (within 5 years), from all workers who were alive before the day the case subject died. We estimated diesel exhaust exposure, represented by respirable elemental carbon (REC), by job and year, for each subject, based on an extensive retrospective exposure assessment at each mining facility. We conducted both categorical and continuous regression analyses adjusted for cigarette smoking and other potential confounding variables (eg, history of employment in high-risk occupations for lung cancer and a history of respiratory disease) to estimate odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Analyses were both unlagged and lagged to exclude recent exposure such as that occurring in the 15 years directly before the date of death (case subjects)/reference date (control subjects). All statistical tests were two-sided.
Results: We observed statistically significant increasing trends in lung cancer risk with increasing cumulative REC and average REC intensity. Cumulative REC, lagged 15 years, yielded a statistically significant positive gradient in lung cancer risk overall (P (trend) = .001); among heavily exposed workers (ie, above the median of the top quartile [REC ≥ 1005 μg/m(3)-y]), risk was approximately three times greater (OR = 3.20, 95% CI = 1.33 to 7.69) than that among workers in the lowest quartile of exposure. Among never smokers, odd ratios were 1.0, 1.47 (95% CI = 0.29 to 7.50), and 7.30 (95% CI = 1.46 to 36.57) for workers with 15-year lagged cumulative REC tertiles of less than 8, 8 to less than 304, and 304 μg/m(3)-y or more, respectively. We also observed an interaction between smoking and 15-year lagged cumulative REC (P (interaction) = .086) such that the effect of each of these exposures was attenuated in the presence of high levels of the other.
Conclusion: Our findings provide further evidence that diesel exhaust exposure may cause lung cancer in humans and may represent a potential public health burden.