In September 2015, Volkswagen made a chilling announcement: they admitted to having installed “defeat devices” in 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide. Basically, they installed devices to make it seem like their cars don’t emit that much — when they did. Although Volkswagen recalled some of the cars already, a new MIT study has revealed that the extra emissions will already come at a hefty price.

Volkswagen messed up big time, and their failure to comply with regulations will end up killing people. Image credits: Pixabay.

According to a comprehensive set of data, almost no diesel cars respect pollution limits, with a quarter producing over six times more than the limit. But Volkswagen actively tried to trick the system and was the first major producer to be revealed as a culprit. Tests revealed that Volkswagen cars emitted pollutants called nitric oxides, or NOx, at levels that were on average four times the applicable European test-stand limit.The scandal that emerged then cast a big shadow over the entire automotive industry, one that’s still looming today. Now, a team of scientists found that the extra emissions from the Volkswagen cars will bring an early end to the lives of over a thousand Europeans — even if the recall is done tomorrow.

Most of the fatalities will likely come from Germany, but neighboring countries will also be affected — as will, to an extent, the entire continent.

“Air pollution is very much transboundary,” says co-author Steven Barrett, the Leonardo-Finmeccanica Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “[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.”

He and his colleagues previously estimated that the excess emissions generated by 482,000 affected vehicles sold in the U.S. will kill about 60 people in the US. However, more cars were sold in Europe (2.6 million), and there are also differences in terms of population density, driving behavior, and atmospheric conditions, to explain the aggravated situation in Europe. They used atmospheric models to produce a map of ozone, which was then overlaid over population density maps across Europe.

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Their grim prognosis includes 500 early deaths in Germany, followed by 160 in Poland, 84 in France, and 72 in the Czech Republic, with the remainder split among other European countries.

“It ends up being about a one percent extra risk of dying early in a given year, per microgram per meter cubed of fine particles you’re exposed to,” Barrett says. “Typically that means that someone who dies early from air pollution ends up dying about a decade early.”

They also say that if Volkswagen cars are recalled and replaced with ones that meet regulatory standards by the end of 2017 and new cars don’t emit more than they should, the company would avert 2,600 premature deaths, or 29,000 years of life lost.

Going forward, Barrett says that they want to extend the tests to more car manufacturers. We all know that cars produce emissions which contribute to global warming and are generally unhealthy, but putting a “price tag” in terms of human lives might help us understand just how bad the situation really is.

“It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions,” Barrett says. “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. So we’re trying to do this for all diesel vehicles.”

Journal ReferenceGuillaume P Chossière, Robert Malina, Akshay Ashok, Irene C Dedoussi, Sebastian D Eastham, Raymond L Speth and Steven R H Barrett — Public health impacts of excess NOx emissions from Volkswagen diesel passenger vehicles in Germany. 

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