Diesel Exhaust and Heart Attacks

Diesel Particulate

Adverse health effects have been associated with diesel particulate matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The causal mechanisms are unclear, but recent theories point at ultrafine particles because of their high lung-penetration efficiency and significant surface area—and to the presence of toxic metals on particles.

Diesel-powered vehicles are gaining in popularity as carmakers continue to make advances in clean diesel technology. Diesels are predicted to compete with hybrids as the preferred fuel efficient and clean car alternative. But just as American consumers begin to cast aside diesel’s dirty stigma, medical researchers from the United Kingdom and Sweden have found serious adverse health risks attributed to diesel exhaust.

In a study presented to the American Heart Association in early November, 2007, researchers reported that exhaust from diesel fuel increased clot formation and blood platelet activity in healthy volunteers—both of which are associated with higher risks of heart attack and stroke. The test group consisted of 20 men, age 21 to 44 years old, who were exposed to diesel exhaust levels comparable to what you would find at curbside on a busy street. After the exposure, researchers measured various blood levels and occurrences within each volunteer. These tests revealed increases in clot formation and platelet activation, significantly enough to be considered conclusive.

“Shortly after exposure to traffic air pollution, individuals are more likely to suffer a heart attack,” said Dr. Andrew Lucking, the lead author of study. “When a person is exposed to relatively high levels of diesel exhaust for a short time, the blood is more likely to clot.” It’s not clear whether these findings would apply to exhaust from conventional gasoline. Diesel engines generate many times more fine pollutant particles than comparable-sized gasoline engines.

The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation. Further ancillary studies on this topic have been planned in collaboration with the University of Umea, Sweden.

An abstract of the study is available from the American heart Association.


  • FInnK

    I cant see why it wouldnt be possible to build a hybrid diesel car. Such a car would use Diesel insted of gasoline as fuel and would be more fuel efficient and have lover emissions than both a normal gasoline hybrid car and a normal diesel car.

  • Zol Hooper

    What the study does not mention is that U.S. emission standards for diesel are considerably stricter than European standards. In fact that’s a major reason why there aren’t more choices of diesel vehicles here. Also, considering the progress made in generating bio-diesel from algae and the ability of diesel engines to run unmodified on bio-diesel, I think it makes a lot of sense to develop diesel cars to sell in the U.S.

  • Zol Hooper

    My guess is that the cost-benefit trade off of a diesel hybrid is not attractive. Supposing that each technology costs the same and adds exactly 10 MPG to a given car, unrealistic I know, then the marginal benefit of going from 30 MPG to 40 is not as much as that of going from 20 MPG to 30, but the cost of using both technologies versus just one would be double.

    It could be that the cost of diesel hybrids approaches the cost of pure electric cars closely enough so as to make them an unappealing option, given that an electric car would be still much more efficient than a diesel hybrid. But again, that’s just my guess given that we don’t see them in use; it could be that diesel hybrids are a project under development as we speak.

  • Editor
  • Patrick

    Diesel exhaust can be made clean with an oxidation catalyst, SCR and DPF. Of course, this comes at a cost. The emission levels are lower than for gasoline, even PM.

    Biodiesel does not make diesel exhaust clean. It only reduces the CO2-footprint. Biodiesel may be the most economic biofuel to make.

    Diesel hybrids? The savings are more difficult to achieve. This will require very smart hybrid systems or plug-ins. Just a thought.

  • kballs

    Were the emissions from old diesels with no particulate filters or catalysts or were they old-school soot stacks? There’s a big difference.

    Regardless of new clean diesels coming to the US, we have PLENTY of nasty diesel exhaust from our old bus and truck fleets.

    I guess we should all take aspirin before going out on the roads (either in a car or as a pedestrian).

  • John

    I commented last week on the Clinton-era Dept. of Energy program called PNGV–Program for New Generation of Vehicle–that spent roughly $1.2 billion on diesel-electric hybrids with the US Big Three. The Bush Administration killed the program in 2002 in favor of hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars. I’d love to know what happened to the technology developed in the 3-4 years the PNGV ran. GM is making diesel hybrids for large vehicles; here in Maryland we have diesel hybrid buses. GE has been making diesel-electric locomotives forever.

    FYI, biofuels aren’t the only answer for cleaner emissions. Propane or LNG would be a great fuel (minus the GW effect…), it is used in Europe quite a lot.