A new study concludes that excess emissions from Volkswagen’s fleet of vehicles fitted with “defeat devices” will result in 1,200 premature deaths in Europe. Researchers at MIT concluded that diesel emissions from the 2.6 million affected cars in Germany alone will produce about 500 premature deaths in Germany with the rest coming from neighbouring countries.
The Volkswagen emissions scandal broke in 2015 when researchers at West Virginia University in the United States tested emissions from three of VW’s diesel cars and found that despite the fact that all three cars had been certified as safely falling below current emissions standards, road tests proved otherwise —to the tune of up to 35 times US emissions limits. The culprit was found to be hidden software which initiated the car’s full emissions-control system only when standard emissions testing was underway.
Ultimately, Volkswagen was found to have installed defeat devices on 11 million cars worldwide between 2008 and 2015. The financial and legal repercussions of the scandal are still to be determined but estimates are well into the tens of billions of dollars for fines, recalls and repairs.
As well, the health costs of VW’s actions are still being calculated. A 2015 study found that pollutants from the nearly 500,000 heavy-emitting VW cars sold in the US would produce 59 premature deaths, most of them to occur on the east and west coasts.
Now, a study from MIT has taken on the larger issue of the damage caused by the roughly 2.6 million defective cars sold in Germany between 2008 and 2015 and estimates that 1,200 people in Europe will die prematurely due to the problem, with each of the victims losing as much as a decade of life.
Researchers used data on German drivers’ behaviour to create a map of excess emissions within Germany, which was then linked up with information modelling how the emissions would react to atmospheric and environmental changes including prevailing winds, temperature and precipitation.
The result was a detailed picture estimating exposure level to nitrogen oxides and ozone, the two main pollutants from diesel emissions, and the associated increased risk of dying from the exposure. The researchers found that of the estimated 1,200 premature deaths, 500 will occur in Germany, 160 in Poland, 84 in France, 72 in the Czech Republic and the remainder occurring in other European countries.
“Air pollution is very much transboundary,” says co-author Steven Barrett, the Leonardo-Finmeccanica Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and study co-author.
“[Pollution] doesn’t care about political boundaries; it just goes straight past. Thus, a car in Germany can easily have significant impacts in neighbouring countries, especially in densely populated areas such as the European continent.”
The researchers repeated their simulation to estimate the health impacts of VW fixing the emissions problems on the defective cars that are still on German roads and found that with all cars repaired by the end of 2017, 2,600 premature deaths could be averted.
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The divergence in health effects in Europe and the US is accounted for by the higher population density in Europe along with differences in atmospheric conditions and driving behaviours. A similar health impact assessment has not yet been conducted for Canada, where an estimated 107,000 Volkswagen and Audi vehicles were sold with defeat devices.
Barrett says that his team plans on conducting research on the health effects of other diesel cars in Europe, saying that it seems “unlikely” that VW cars are the only ones with emissions issues.
“We don’t know if other manufacturers have these defeat devices, but there is already evidence that many other vehicles in practice emit more than the applicable test-stand limit value,” says Barrett. “So we’re trying to do this for all diesel vehicles.”
In December, 2016, Volkswagen Group Canada agreed to a $2.1-billion settlement with 105,000 Canadian diesel car owners, one of the largest consumer settlements in Canadian history, according to the Competition Bureau. VW has been fined $15 million by the Competition Bureau for misleading advertising, while the federal government’s investigation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act is still ongoing.