Diesel pollution and health

Diesel exhaust is costing Oregon billions of dollars each year in health care costs, lost lives and missed work and school.

“In pediatrics, we want to prevent kids from getting sick. We are asking parents to take individual action. But there’s nothing we can do to get them to prevent exposing their kids to air pollution. It’s only good public policy that can help protect kids in that way.” — Dr. Paul Lewis, MD, MPH; Tri-County Health Officer

Diesel exhaust consists of particles and gases including 44 toxic substances. At least 80% of diesel exhaust is microscopic sooty particles so small that, when inhaled, they can enter the bloodstream and lodge in the brain, heart and placenta. Infants and children, elders, and those with health problems are at highest risk of harm.

In a hearing before an Oregon Senate subcommittee on February 23, 2017, Oregon’s health experts weighed in on the importance of reducing exposure to diesel pollution.

“What is it that is special about diesel that warrants additional controls? Well, it penetrates deep into the lung. It goes past the defenses that we all have. What we’re talking about with diesel is a tiny, tiny particle… they actually get into the gas exchange regions [of the lungs]. We can see these particles transferred to the heart tissue…and the brain.”— William Lambert, Epidemiologist, OHSU

Dementia and cognitive function

“A concern for diesel in particular, where there’s a high emissions rate for nano-particles and ultrafine particles, they can actually reach the brain directly through the olfactory bulb. A study was able to visualize these nano-particles within the brain tissue. This research area is still very much emerging.”— Dr. Perry Hystad, Epidemiologist, OSU

Children and lung function 

“We worry about pregnancy and exposure to the developing fetus, and children and their developing lungs. Lung growth is less if you live in areas with a lot of particulate pollution. You actually end up growing less lung.”— Dr. Paul Lewis, MD, MpH, Tri-County Health Officer


“Some of the most carcinogenic [elements of diesel exhaust] are not very volatile, so they wouldn’t on their own be airborne. But they can become airborne because they adhere to these particles. So the particle becomes the vehicle to move this more potent [element] into the lung that would not normally get there through inhalation.” — Dr. David Farrer, toxicologist, OHA



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