Minimizing the VW Scandal’s Impact

Excess emissions will cause 1,200 premature deaths in Europe, but retrofitting could prevent many more.

In September 2015, the German Volkswagen Group, the world’s largest car producer, admitted to having installed “defeat devices” in 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide between 2008 and 2015. The devices were designed to detect and adapt to laboratory tests, making the cars appear to comply with environmental standards when, in fact, during normal use they emitted pollutants called nitric oxides, or NOx, at levels that were on average four times the applicable European limit.

Although Volkswagen has issued vehicle recalls in both the U.S. and Europe, scientists at MIT and elsewhere have found that public health has already suffered.

The team previously estimated that the excess emissions generated by 482,000 affected vehicles sold in the U.S. will cause approximately 60 premature deaths across the U.S. Now the researchers have looked closer to Volkswagen’s home base, examining the health impact of the 2.6 million affected cars sold in Germany under the VW, Audi, Skoda, and Seat brands.

Reporting in Environmental Research Letters, the researchers estimate that 1,200 people in Europe will die early, each losing on average a decade of life, as a result of excess emissions generated between 2008 and 2015 by affected cars sold in Germany. Of these premature deaths, 500 are likely to occur in Germany; more than 60 percent will occur in neighboring countries, most notably Poland, France, and the Czech Republic.

“Air pollution is very much transboundary,” says coauthor Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aero-astro.

“[Pollution] doesn’t care about political boundaries; it just goes straight past. Thus a car in Germany can easily have significant impacts in neighboring countries, especially in densely populated areas such as the European continent.”

If Volkswagen can recall and retrofit affected vehicles to meet European standards by the end of 2017, this would avert 2,600 additional premature deaths, or 29,000 life years lost, and 4.1 billion euros in health-care costs.  

The researchers now plan to expand their study of auto emissions’ health impact, concentrating on diesel vehicles in Europe.

“It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions,” Barrett says. Though other manufacturers may not have defeat devices, he says, there is evidence that many vehicles emit more pollutants in practice than test standards permit, “so we’re trying to do this for all diesel ­vehicles.”

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