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Open Access Commentary

Diesel exhaust in miners study: how to understand the findings?

Peter Morfeld

Author Affiliations

Institute for Occupational Epidemiology and Risk Assessment of Evonik Industries, Essen, Germany

Institute and Policlinic for Occupational Medicine, Environmental Medicine and Prevention Research, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany

Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology 2012, 7:10  doi:10.1186/1745-6673-7-10

Published: 7 June 2012

Abstract

The Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study (DEMS) is an outstanding epidemiological project on the association between occupational diesel exhaust exposures, measured as long-term respirable elemental carbon (REC) estimates, and lung cancer mortality in a large cohort of US miners. Two articles published recently (Attfield et al. (J Natl Cancer Inst Epub, [2012]), Silverman et al. (J Natl Cancer Inst Epub, [2012])) dsescribed the epidemiological findings. These papers are expected to have considerable impact on the evaluation of the carcinogenic potential of diesel exhaust and, furthermore, on occupational and environmental limit value discussions related to diesel motor emissions and particle exposures. DEMS found remarkable exposure-response relationships between REC exposure estimates and lung cancer mortality - conditional on a pronounced effect of surface vs. underground work on lung cancer risk. If this risk factor is ignored the estimated REC-lung cancer association is attenuated substantially. The authors relied on this risk factor in their main analyses. However, this factor “surface/underground work” remained unexplained. The factor lead the authors to introduce unusual cross-product terms of location and smoking in adjustment procedures and even caused the authors to hypothesize that high REC exposures are protective against lung cancer excess risks due to smoking. To understand the reliability of these conclusions, we should ask basic questions about the data collection process in DEMS: Did the mortality follow-up procedures suffer from errors like those that affected the NCI formaldehyde cohort study? Are the REC and/or smoking data reliable, and are these data collected/constructed in such a way that the procedures allow valid comparisons between surface and underground workers? Without clarifying the issues raised in this Commentary the Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study remains to be difficult to interpret.

Keywords:
Diesel exhaust in miners study; Epidemiology; Lung cancer; Respirable elemental carbon