The recent Volkswagen (VW) scandal rocked the world when the company was found to have conspired to evade emissions standards, with millions of its cars secretly generating inordinate amounts of polluting chemicals. Consequently, the German car giant has suffered its first quarterly loss in at least 15 years. However, a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters looks to cause more financial trouble for the beleaguered car manufacturer. By covering up the toxic emissions levels of more than 482,000 of its diesel vehicles in the United States, it will have directly contributed to 59 premature deaths.
The cover-up, revealed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that many VW-manufactured cars sold in the U.S. were found to contain cheat devices that recognized when the car’s emissions were being tested. These devices altered the performance of the car in order to temporarily produce fewer hazardous emissions, meaning that their real, higher emission levels on American roads went undetected. Since then, over 11 million cars worldwide have been found to contain the cheat device.
To estimate the detrimental health effects of the cars with cheat devices, the researchers looked at three scenarios: a future with a total recall, a future with no recall, and the current situation with the 482,000 “cheating” cars on American roads.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-led study found that the concealed levels of pollution, multiplied by the number of cheating vehicles in the U.S. on the road between 2009 and 2015, and extrapolated across various population densities and distributions, would cause nearly 60 people to die a decade or two earlier than they otherwise would have. If VW doesn’t manage to recall every single affected vehicle from the U.S. by the end of 2016, another 130 Americans will die prematurely.
These excess emissions won’t just cause premature deaths: They are predicted to contribute to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 34 hospital admissions of people suffering from significant breathing or heart trouble. As these health problems are estimated to cause 120,000 restricted activity days, including days off from work, the U.S. could find itself with a $450 million (£295 million) bill to cover these costs. Without a complete recall of the affected vehicles in 2016, another $840 million (£550 million) could be added to this bill.
Although the details of the cheat device have yet to be revealed by either VW or the EPA, it’s known that the company used sophisticated computer software that could monitor the speed of the car, its engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel to work out when it was being tested. It then switched to a safety mode, masking the fact that outside of testing it would produce 4000% more nitrogen oxide pollutants than is legally allowed in the U.S. under the Clean Air Act.
Nitrous oxide compounds are produced mainly through transportation; even short-term exposure can cause dangerous breathing problems. These compounds also react with moisture and ammonia in the atmosphere to turn into ozone, exposure to which caused around 4,300 deaths in the U.S. in 2010 alone.