VW emissions estimated to cause 59 premature US deaths

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Volkswagen AG's decision to install illegal software in 482,000 diesel cars allowing up to 40 times allowable pollution emissions will directly contribute to nearly 60 premature deaths in the United states, a new study from MIT and Harvard University researchers found.

The study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds excess emissions from Volkswagen’s "defeat devices" will cause 59 people in the U.S. to die 10 to 20 years prematurely. VW didn't immediately comment on the research.

But the research said if all are recalled by the end of 2016, more than 130 additional early deaths may be avoided. Without a recall the compounding impact of excess emissions would cause 140 people to die early.

The study found that the excess emissions contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital stays involving respiratory and cardiac conditions, according to an MIT news release

Individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days estimates the study.

In total, VW's excess emissions are estimated to add $450 million in health expenses and other social costs. But if all vehicles are recalled by the end of 2016 it could save an additional $840 million in health and other costs.

Volkswagen did not have a specific comment about the study but did provide a statement about the emission regulations: “Volkswagen has acknowledged that some of its vehicles did not comply with certain emissions regulations. We have suspended the sale of the affected vehicles and are working diligently to remedy the issue as soon as possible. The EPA has noted that the affected vehicles do not present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive.”

Steven Barrett, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said the goal was to give the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board a better sense of the impact.

Diesel vehicles emit nitrogen oxides, which react in the atmosphere to form fine particulate matter and ozone that can lead to smog and cause health problems.

The early deaths are equal to 20 percent of the number of deaths caused by traffic crashes on a per mile driven basis, the researchers say. This is the first peer reviewed scientific estimate of how many deaths are linked to VW's emissions. The software allowed the 2009-2015 diesel cars — 11 million worldwide — to pass laboratory emissions tests, but emit 10 to 40 times allowable levels in real-world driving.

Air pollution is a huge public health issue especially exposure to fine particulate matter. EPA estimated that in 2010 there were around 160, 000 premature U.S. deaths because of particulate matter exposure and 4,300 related to ozone exposure.

The Justice Department and federal prosecutors in Detroit are leading the criminal investigation into VW’s admitted cheating. EPA has said VW could face up to $18 billion in fines. VW faces more than 350 lawsuits around the country.

VW hasn’t announced any fix for the vehicles. In Europe earlier this month, VW said it was recalling 8.5 million vehicles in Europe, but hasn’t notified regulators what the fix is. The EPA and California have refused to certify the 2016 diesel VW cars with 2.0 liter engines. VW has also issued a stop sale on remaining 2015 diesel cars in showrooms.

VW withdrew its application for 2016 certification after it disclosed it hadn’t told EPA that the vehicles have auxiliary emissions control devices that should have been disclosed at the time of its application. The devices may also be on some vehicles currently on the road, EPA has said.

German prosecutors are also investigating and have raided VW offices. Regulators and other agencies around the world are also investigating.

VW has set aside $7.3 billion to cover costs, saw its CEO step down and suspended three top managers as a U.S. law firm, Jones Day, conducts an internal investigation. Winfried Vahland, the VW executive that was tapped to take a new position overseeing VW in North America starting Nov. 1 abruptly resigned before he started the new job.

Earlier this month, VW U.S. chief Michael Horn testified before Congress and said it could be late next year before a fix is ready for all three generations of VW diesel engines. He acknowledged that the oldest vehicles would require software and mechanical repair, which he agreed was a “major fix.”