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Railroad Industry Diesel Exhaust Fume Diseases: Interview With Industrial Hygienest Leonard Vance

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The author has been exploring health and safety issues relating to diesel exhaust fume asthma and pollution and personal health and safety, especially in the railroad industry  In reviewing several legal decisions involving diesel exhaust asthma in railroad workers, I noticed that a Richmond, Virginia industrial hygienist was quoted by the Court decisions.  I decided to catch up with this expert, Leonard Vance, and interview him about current issues relating to diesel exhaust pollution and health issues, especially at railroads.  Dr. Vance is also a lawyer, and a professor in the Epidemiology Department at the Medical College of Virginia Campus of VCU in Richmond.

Q:        Dr. Vance, what do you teach at the Medical College of Virginia and in what department are you working?

A:       I’m in the Department of Epidemiology and Community Health within the School of Medicine.  I teach 5 graduate courses: a required course entitled Principles of Occupational & Environmental Health, a two semester course in industrial hygiene, a course in Public Health Law, and a course in chemical law and regulation as my Ph.D. is in chemistry.  And I teach several VCU continuing education courses covering hazardous waste, asbestos, and lead issues. 

Q:         You have unique credentials because you are both a Virginia lawyer and a hygienist. Since what year have you been a lawyer, and do you still handle cases or are you  just working as an industrial hygienist?

A:       As a professor, I work on a 9 month contract.  So I do have the summers off and I practice both law and industrial hygiene during that time.  As a lawyer, I represent mainly defendants in OSHA enforcement cases.  And I still do field industrial hygiene air monitoring, as well.   The primary benefit of being a professor is that the work is never routine.

Q:         I’ve known you since the mid 1990s since we co-authored a Treatise article entitled “Railroad Health and Safety;  A Litigator’s Guide” that was  published by Thomson West in American Jurisprudence Trials.  However, when we wrote that book length treatment in the 1990s we barely paid attention to diesel exhaust fume safety.  What new information has become available to industrial hygienists and medical  doctors doctors with regard to prolonged exposure to diesel exhaust fumes?

A:  Numerous studies of the health effects resulting from diesel exhaust have been published.  Many of them are referenced in a recent publication from EPA discussing EPA’s reasons for tightening its regulations on diesel exhaust.  Some of the effects associated with diesel exhaust exposure are cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, heart and lung diseases, a variety of cardiac effects, increased cough, poor lung function, and premature mortality.

Q:         Do any of the medical articles or studies discuss whether diesel exhaust fumes cause  lung disorders in railroad workers, or are associated with increased rates of cancers?

A:        A lot has been written about lung cancer, diesel exhaust exposure, and railroad workers.  Here’s what EPA recently published[1] about that topic in the Federal Register on March 14:

Retrospective health studies of railroad workers have played an important part in determining that exposure to diesel exhaust is likely to be carcinogenic to humans by inhalation from environmental exposures. Key evidence of the diesel exhaust exposure linkage to lung cancer comes from two retrospective case-control studies of railroad workers….

*  *  *  *
… EPA reviewed 22 epidemiologic studies on the subject of the carcinogenicity of workers exposed to diesel exhaust in various occupations, finding increased lung cancer risk, although not always statistically significant, in 8 out of 10 cohort studies and 10 out of 12 case-control studies within several industries, including railroad workers. Relative risk for lung cancer associated with exposure ranged from 1.2 to 1.5, although a few studies show relative risks as high as 2.6. Additionally, the  [EPA] also relied on two independent meta-analyses, which examined 23 and 30 occupational studies respectively, which found statistically significant increases in smoking-adjusted relative lung cancer risk associated with exposure to diesel exhaust, of 1.33 to 1.47. These meta-analyses demonstrate the effect of pooling many studies and in this case show the positive relationship between diesel exhaust exposure and lung cancer across a variety of diesel exhaust-exposed occupations.

So, yes, studies have confirmed the adverse health affects on railroad workers.

Q:        Did you notice that in March 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new regulations that provide for new pollution controls and for testing, relating to railroad  locomotives, and are these new regulations tighter and stricter then  before?

Q:        They are quite a bit stricter than the rules they replace.  And those rules were fairly new themselves.  EPA said its March rule would annually prevent up to 1,380   premature deaths, 120,000 lost work days, 120,000 school day absences, and 1.1 million minor restricted-activity days.  Now that’s from the rules effect on both locomotives and marine engines, but it’s pretty dramatic.

Q:        Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

A:        You are very welcome.

Dr. Vance is a life-long Virginian, with his B.S. from Virginia Tech and his doctorate from UVA.  His email address is vance@vcu.edu.  

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[1] EPA Final Rule, Control of Emissions of Air Pollution from Locomotive Engines … .,  Federal Register, March 14, 2008; available at http://www.epa.gov/otaq/regs/nonroad/lm-preamble.pdf