Volkswagen’s Illegal Emissions Linked to 60 Premature Deaths

November 3, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Volkswagen symbol
Photo credit: Gerry Lauzon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An additional 140 lives may be at risk too.

In late September, Volkswagen got caught up in a serious scandal. The Environmental Protection Agency did some investigating and found that Volkswagen had installed a secret software cheat in about 500,000 diesel engine vehicles. This software enabled the vehicles to pass emissions inspections, but the cars were actually releasing 10 to 40 times more emissions than the legal limit.

Now, researchers at MIT and Harvard have calculated how these illegal emissions will affect people, concluding that in the US alone, 60 people could die 10 to 20 years prematurely. However, if Volkswagen fails to recall all of the offending vehicles by 2016, an additional 140 people could suffer premature deaths, according to the study.

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In order to land at those numbers, the researchers first calculated the amount of additional pollution that will end up in the atmosphere because of the illegal Volkswagen cars. They computed how much each vehicle would be driven in its lifetime, and multiplied the estimated emissions per car by the number of cars sold in between the time period of 2008 and 2015.

Then, they calculated the numbers for three different scenarios: how much the vehicles have already emitted, how much they would emit if they were all recalled by the end of 2016, and the amount that would be released if no recall occurs.

Finally, the scientists estimated how the illegal emissions would impact public health by calculating the effects of the fine particulates, ozone, and nitrous oxide. Their findings led to the estimate of 60 deaths in the US alone, and 140 more if the cars aren’t off the roads by 2016. In addition to the premature deaths, the researchers calculated that the excess emissions will generate a whopping $450 million in health expenses, including cases of chronic bronchitis and respiratory and cardiac conditions. An additional $840 million in expenses could arise if there’s no recall.

Steven Barrett, the lead author of the paper and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, hopes the new data will help regulatory officials better gauge the effects of Volkswagen’s fraudulent actions to determine an appropriate financial penalty.

“It seemed to be an important issue in which we could bring to bear impartial information to help quantify the human implications of the Volkswagen emissions issue,” Barrett said, according to MIT News. “The main motivation is to inform the public and inform the developing regulatory situation.”

Unfortunately, while this study estimates the effects the illegal emissions could have on the US, the researchers still haven’t calculated the possible global outcome. The researchers are just beginning to analyze the effects of illegal VW cars in Europe, where diesel cars are even more popular. Hopefully the company will take the calculations of the initial study as incentive to recall every harmful car as quickly as possible.

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