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Inhal Toxicol. 2012 Jun;24 Suppl 1:1-45. doi: 10.3109/08958378.2012.691913. Epub 2012 Jun 4.

Health effects research and regulation of diesel exhaust: an historical overview focused on lung cancer risk.

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Navistar Inc., Chicago, Illinois 60601, USA.


The mutagenicity of organic solvent extracts from diesel exhaust particulate (DEP), first noted more than 55 years ago, initiated an avalanche of diesel exhaust (DE) health effects research that now totals more than 6000 published studies. Despite an extensive body of results, scientific debate continues regarding the nature of the lung cancer risk posed by inhalation of occupational and environmental DE, with much of the debate focused on DEP. Decades of scientific scrutiny and increasingly stringent regulation have resulted in major advances in diesel engine technologies. The changed particulate matter (PM) emissions in "New Technology Diesel Exhaust (NTDE)" from today's modern low-emission, advanced-technology on-road heavy-duty diesel engines now resemble the PM emissions in contemporary gasoline engine exhaust (GEE) and compressed natural gas engine exhaust more than those in the "traditional diesel exhaust" (TDE) characteristic of older diesel engines. Even with the continued publication of epidemiologic analyses of TDE-exposed populations, this database remains characterized by findings of small increased lung cancer risks and inconsistent evidence of exposure-response trends, both within occupational cohorts and across occupational groups considered to have markedly different exposures (e.g. truckers versus railroad shopworkers versus underground miners). The recently published National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-National Cancer Institute (NCI) epidemiologic studies of miners provide some of the strongest findings to date regarding a DE-lung cancer association, but some inconsistent exposure-response findings and possible effects of bias and exposure misclassification raise questions regarding their interpretation. Laboratory animal studies are negative for lung tumors in all species, except for rats under lifetime TDE-exposure conditions with durations and concentrations that lead to "lung overload." The species specificity of the rat lung response to overload, and its occurrence with other particle types, is now well-understood. It is thus generally accepted that the rat bioassay for inhaled particles under conditions of lung overload is not predictive of human lung cancer hazard. Overall, despite an abundance of epidemiologic and experimental data, there remain questions as to whether TDE exposure causes increased lung cancers in humans. An abundance of emissions characterization data, as well as preliminary toxicological data, support NTDE as being toxicologically distinct from TDE. Currently, neither epidemiologic data nor animal bioassay data yet exist that directly bear on NTDE carcinogenic potential. A chronic bioassay of NTDE currently in progress will provide data on whether NTDE poses a carcinogenic hazard, but based on the significant reductions in PM mass emissions and the major changes in PM composition, it has been hypothesized that NTDE has a low carcinogenic potential. When the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reevaluates DE (along with GEE and nitroarenes) in June 2012, it will be the first authoritative body to assess DE carcinogenic health hazards since the emergence of NTDE and the accumulation of data differentiating NTDE from TDE.

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