Volkswagen’s Emissions Software Cheat ‘Will Cause 60 Premature Deaths’

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An MIT study suggests a swift vehicle recall by Volkswagen would avoid 130 early deaths, though

Volkswagen’s use of software to sidestep emissions regulations in more than 482,000 diesel vehicles sold in the US will directly contribute to 60 premature deaths across the country, authors of an MIT-led study have claimed.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the German car manufacturer had developed and installed software designed to trick emissions testers in light-duty diesel vehicles sold between 2008 and 2015.

Test sensing

This software was created to sense when a car was undergoing an emissions test, and only then engage the vehicle’s full emissions-control system, which would otherwise be disabled under normal driving conditions. The cheat allows the vehicles to emit 40 times more emissions than permitted by the Clean Air Act.

In the wake of the scandal, Volkwagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned. But the amount of excess pollution generated, multiplied by the number of affected vehicles sold in the US and extrapolated over population distributions and health risk factors across the country, will have significant effects on public health, MIT’s researchers asserted.

cars in heavy trafficAccording to the study, conducted by MIT and Harvard University and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, excess emissions from Volkswagen’s so-called ‘defeat devices’ will cause around 60 people in the US to die 10 to 20 years prematurely. If the automaker recalls every affected vehicle by the end of 2016, more than 130 additional early deaths may be avoided.

If, however, Volkswagen does not order a recall in the US, the excess emissions, compounding in the future, will cause 140 people to die early, the researchers warned.

In addition to the increase in premature deaths, the researchers estimate that Volkswagen’s excess emissions will contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions. They calculate that individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.

In total, Volkswagen’s excess emissions will generate $450m in health expenses and other social costs, the study projects, according to the study. But a total vehicle recall by the end of 2016 could save up to $840m in further health and social costs, the researchers asserted.

Steven Barrett, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said the new data may help regulatory officials better estimate the effects of Volkswagen’s actions.

To estimate the health effects of Volkswagen’s excess emissions, Barrett and his colleagues at MIT and Harvard based their calculations on measurements by researchers at West Virginia University, who found that the vehicles produced up to 40 times the emissions allowed by law. They then calculated the average amount that each vehicle would be driven over its lifetime, and combined these results with sales data between 2008 and 2015 to estimate of the total excess emissions during this period.

The group then calculated the resulting emissions under three scenarios: the current scenario, in which 482,000 vehicles have already emitted excess emissions into the atmosphere; a scenario in which Volkswagen recalls every affected vehicle by the end of 2016; and a future in which there is no recall, and every affected vehicle remains on the road, continuing to emit excess pollution over the course of its lifetime.

The group then estimated the health effects under each emissions scenario, using a method they developed to map emissions estimates to public exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone. Diesel vehicles emit nitrogen oxides, which react in the atmosphere to form fine particulate matter and ozone. Barrett’s approach essentially maps emissions estimates to population health risk, accounting for atmospheric transport and chemistry of the pollutants.


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