This hazard is somewhat difficult to understand. There are number of reasons for the confusion, but the easiest way to explain it is to realize that:


Diesel exhaust = Diesel particulate matter (DPM) = lots of different chemicals & particulates

AND: There is not a perfect way to measure the exact exposure.

The Long Story:

The term ‘diesel particulates‘ includes the following (not a comprehensive list):

  • elemental carbon (the most reliable method for testing occupational exposure to exhaust, Birch & Cary 1996)
  • organic carbon
  • carbon monoxide (CO)
  • carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • hydrocarbons (PAH)
  • formaldehyde
  • oxides of sulfur & nitrogen

You can quickly see that these are very different substances, and to make it more confusing, you can change the amounts by:

  • the fuel (on road/off, low emission fuel, biodiesel)
  • the motor type
  • the tuning of the motor (& dynamic versus idle), new motor restrictions
  • scrubbers, etc.

In addition, there are not any well-established occupational exposure limits specifically for diesel exhaust. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified “whole diesel engine exhaust” as a carcinogen (cancer causing), so there is reason for concern. Most of the research and rules are in the mining industry, which uses a lot of diesel equipment and the exhaust really has no where to go.

  • OSHA = none, but they have a hazard bulletin, and of course, some of the components have exposure limits
  • MSHA = 0.4 mg/m3 for total hydrocarbons and 0.3 mg/m3 for elemental carbon
  • Canada (CANMET) for respirable combustible dust (66% of respirable dust in mines is from diesel exhaust) = 1.5 mg/m3
  • ACGIH = none (for now)
    • 1995 proposed 0.15 mg/m3 (for diesel particulate matter)
    • 1996 proposed lowering it to 0.05 mg/m3 (for diesel particulate matter)
    • 2001 proposed a different limit of 0.02 mg/m3,
      • but for elemental carbon and
      • said it was a suspected carcinogen
    • 2003 withdrew proposed limit- citing not enough scientific information

Bottom line:

  • control the exhaust & where it goes (better fuel, better mechanical, scrubbers, ventilation).
  • most exposures to diesel are below the (now retracted) ACGIH TLV of 0.02 mg/m3 (or 20 ug/m3) (Seshagiri & Burton, 2003).
  • If you have a confined area, unusual concerns, or a particularly stinky situation; measure for multiple parameters (CO, CO2, elemental carbon and maybe NOx, and SOx). Compare these to their respective limits and classify the exposure (describe the conditions)