Did Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheating Lead to Early Deaths?

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Researchers link some 1,200 early deaths across Europe to excess emissions from millions of compromised cars sold in Germany.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

In 2015, word got out that millions of Volkswagen vehicles had been equipped with software to cheat on emissions tests. The news provided researchers and policymakers with at least a partial explanation for why pollution levels across Europe didn’t drop as much as expected after emissions regulations were put in place in the 1990s. Now, researchers from the United States and Belgium are looking into the public-health effects of the excess emissions from the 11 million cars with the devious devices sold around the world, and suggest that approximately 500 people died early between 2008 and 2015 due to the extra air pollution.

In the new study, published today in Environmental Research Letters, a research team looked at just the 2.6 million affected cars that were sold in Germany. Typically, nitrogen oxides expelled from car engines interact with other compounds or pollutants in the air to form fine particulate matter, which, when inhaled by humans, can cause cardiopulmonary and respiratory illnesses. Pollution recognizes no borders, and the health effects of the extra emissions rippled across Europe, perhaps leading to another 700 early deaths in other countries, shaving an average of 10 years off each life.

The team came to those estimates by combining data on Germans’ driving habits, on-road emissions, and atmospheric conditions, which can influence both the severity and geographic range of pollution. Indeed, the excess emissions had more potent public-health effects in Europe than in the U.S.

A previous study by the same authors found that the 482,000 compromised cars sold in the U.S. caused some 60 premature deaths between 2008 and 2015; however, the study authors write, “we find that while the number of VW cars sold in Germany is 440% higher than the number sold in the U.S., excess emissions in Germany are 540% higher than in the U.S.”

That’s because Germans drive those cars some 20 percent more than Americans—but it’s not just about the number of cars or the miles they logged. The atmospheric conditions across Europe and its higher population density combine to exacerbate the effects of the pollutants. “[W]e find that each unit of [nitrogen oxides] emitted in Europe results in 5 times as many premature mortalities (per capita) as in the U.S.,” the authors write.

If Volkswagen can recall all the affected vehicles in Germany and modify the engines to comply with European emissions restrictions by the end of this year, it could save 4.1 billion Euros in heath-care costs, and prevent some 2,600 additional early deaths, according to the researchers.

The study provides a tangible measure of the benefits of environmental regulations. It’s something policymakers in the U.S.—where environmental regulations and agencies are on the chopping block—might want to consider carefully.