Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler are neck-deep in criticism following the news that they helped fund experiments in which monkeys and even humans breathed in diesel exhaust fumes.
One of these experiments – as reported by The New York Times and the Netflix documentary Dirty Money – forced 10 Java monkeys to inhale fumes from a diesel Volkswagen Beetle while sitting in an air chamber watching cartoons on a TV screen. Another experiment saw 25 healthy humans breathing in different levels of nitrogen dioxide, according to a report by German daily newspaper The Stuttgarter Zeitung.
Although the monkeys did not immediately die from the exposure to the exhaust fumes, their condition after the experiment remains unknown.
The experiments were commissioned by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), a body funded by Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW. The newspapers claim that these experiments were funded in a scramble to challenge a decision by the World Health Organization to classify diesel exhaust as a carcinogen. The results were also deliberately rigged to fit their desired results.
Within just a few days, the news has splurged into one big PR disaster for the German car giants, especially with the 2015 Volkswagon emissions test cheat scandal still fresh in the memories of consumers.
Daimler and BMW have tried to distance themselves from the research, arguing their cars weren’t involved in the experiments. Volkswagen has already issued an apology, releasing a statement saying: “We are conscious of our social and corporate responsibilities and are taking the criticism regarding the study very seriously. We know that the scientific methods used by EUGT were wrong and apologise sincerely for this.” They have also launched an investigation into the work of the since-liquidated EUGT.
Earlier today VW said in a statement that they have also suspended their media chief, Dr Thomas Steg, who knew about the experiments before they took place. The company described the suspension as the "first consequences" of the animal tests.
Politicians, environmentalists, and animal rights groups have all been quick to condemn the experiments. PETA has written an open letter to Volkswagen Group, asking them “never to conduct experiments on animals again”. A spokesperson for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said on Monday: “These tests on monkeys or even on humans are not ethically justifiable in any shape or form. The indignation of many people is absolutely understandable.”
With more and more countries banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars, the experiments are being seen as a wider attempt by the car industry to uphold diesel as a positive clean energy source. Most scientists, however, would argue that the sooner the internal combustion engine dies, the better. In September 2017, a study found that up to 10,000 people in the European Union (EU) die prematurely from diesel vehicle pollution each year.