Volkswagen emissions cheat may lead to 50 premature deaths, $423 million in economic costs, study finds

September 20, 2016, Columbia University

Beginning in 2008, Volkswagen installed software to circumvent emissions testing by turning off the nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions control system in real-world driving in nearly half a million cars. A new analysis using a tool developed and used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the health and economic impacts related to air quality calculates that a single year of elevated emissions from the affected VW vehicles could lead to as many as 50 premature deaths, 3,000 lost workdays, and $423 million in economic costs.

The analysis was led by scientists at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Results appear in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Policy.

"It is well established in scientific literature that nitrogen oxides contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular disease leading to disability and death," says first author Lifang Hou, MD, PhD, associate professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern.

The researchers used the EPA's Co-Benefits Risk Assessment Model (COBRA), a peer-reviewed tool, to estimate the costs and benefits of . The model derives changes of ambient fine particulate matter (PM) concentrations related to NOx emissions then uses PM levels to estimate health and economic costs. The approach is similar to what the EPA uses for regulatory impact analysis.

The study outlines three scenarios (best, midpoint, and worse) for several specific health outcomes such as asthma exacerbations (154; 407; 660), as well as hospital admissions related to respiratory and (3; 9; 14) and days of work lost (687; 1,816; 2,947). For each category, the researchers report the related . Premature deaths accounted for the bulk of costs, ranging from $42 million when the researchers assumed a relatively lower risk and best-case scenario to $418 million for a higher risk assumption and worst-case scenario.

The effect of non-compliant VW emissions is almost certainly substantially worse than their estimates for several reasons, the study's authors say. First, the analysis only accounts for a single year of added emissions when most of the vehicles have been on the road for multiple years; secondly, the researchers looked at emissions from the approximately 482,000 cars using 2.0-liter diesel engines, not additional non-compliant cars with 3.0-liter diesel engines, nor the approximately 800,000 additional diesel and gas vehicles with underreported ; lately, they put aside the established link between NOx and ozone, a known health risk and greenhouse gas.

On June 28, VW agreed to pay as much $14.7 in a civil accord with most of the funds dedicated to taking the affected cars off the road or retrofitting them. From these funds, $2.7 billion is set aside for environmental cleanup and $2.0 billion, for initiatives promoting the use of zero-emission vehicles in the U.S. In addition, the company is facing criminal charges and civil penalties related to violations of the Clean Air Act.

"Emissions of from these vehicles were as much as 40 times higher than the EPA standard, adding up to 15,000 metric tons of these chemicals into the air we breath every year," says Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, Chair and Leon Hess Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia's Mailman School. "It's crucial that Americans and the government officials they serve know the extent of the damage done to and the economy."

Co-authors include Kai Zhang at the University of Texas School of Public Health and Moira A. Luthin at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The authors declare no conflicts.

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1 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2016
What a bunch of BS. There is now way they can relate 50 deaths to this. All the "cheat" did was to give back some of the power the EPA stole from us. I hate it when they spend millions on a study to give their massive over regulation credibility.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2016
Volkswagen emissions cheat may lead to 50 premature deaths

Well now, that thar's the result of some bullshit statistics, I tell you what.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 20, 2016
Most significantly, the estimated 50 deaths result only from the small number of cheating vehicles in the US. The number in Europe is 17 times larger and they have been polluting over not one year but 9 years. I hate it when huge global corporations ignore important environmental laws in order to increase their profits by billions.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2016
The number in Europe is 17 times larger

17 x 50 = 850 and that's still a small number considering the population is around 500 million. That's 1.7 parts per million.

Consider that the common unlikely causes of death such as dying from leukemia affect people at a rate of 42 per million. The increased risk of dying in Europe from the Volkswagen cheat, or in the US for that matter, is absolutely miniscule, and it's eclipsed by air quality problems from other government actions, such as forcing ethanol into fuels which cause cars to emit formaldehyde when the engine is cold.

The emissions cheat is about the governments making conflicting demands on the auto industry and punishing the consumers when they fail to meet them. There is a compromize between high efficiency and low emissions in any internal combustion engine because NOx is made at high pressure and temperature, and Carnot's law dictates that efficiency only increases with temperature and pressure.

not rated yet Sep 21, 2016
ethanol into fuels which cause cars to emit formaldehyde when the engine is cold.

Correction: acetaldehyde (ethanal), which is a human carsinogen.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has listed acetaldehyde as a Group 1 carcinogen.[8] Acetaldehyde is "one of the most frequently found air toxins with cancer risk greater than one in a million."

So, it's a bit of a hypocricy to complain about diesel emissions when you're putting that stuff in the air under the pretense of saving the environment.

Indeed, the whole brouhaha about the emissions cheat is one part American auto industry being afraid of European high economy and high performance diesel cars, and another part the media creating a moral panic over what is practically a non-issue.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2016
The bottom line is that the emissions are overall, as low as they can practically be. They could be lower, but if you install an exhaust treatment system in half a million cars that costs $1000 extra, that's going to cost more to the economy than the estimated $423 million loss and it still won't eliminate all the emissions, and it will increase fuel consumption which overall puts more pollution in the air simply due to the amount of fuel burned across the fleet of the cars.

In the big picture, if the perfect car is 100% then the cars of the 70's were at 50% and smog was an issue. The cars of the 90's were at 90% and smog was no longer and issue, and cars of today are 95% - and the government is trying to force them to be 96% by law, which is costing the industry and the consumers a lot extra for very little actual benefit.

That's called diminishing returns.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2016
As for the air quality problems in Europe, such as in Paris, that's mostly a result of two factors:

High fuel prices (high tax) -> people drive diesel cars
High vehicle prices (high tax) - > people drive OLD diesel cars

It's gotten so bad that the authorities are banning the use of cars older than 1996.

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