Volkswagen's excess emissions will lead to 1,200 premature deaths in Europe, study says

car exhaust
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In September 2015, the German Volkswagen Group, the world's largest car producer, admitted to having installed "defeat devices" in 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide between 2008 and 2015. The devices were designed to detect and adapt to laboratory tests, making the cars appear to comply with environmental standards when, in fact, they emitted pollutants called nitric oxides, or NOx, at levels that were on average four times the applicable European test-stand limit.

While Volkswagen has issued recalls of affected vehicles in both the U.S. and Europe, scientists at MIT and elsewhere have found the excess emissions has already had an impact on public . The team previously estimated that the excess emissions generated by 482,000 affected vehicles sold in the U.S. will cause approximately 60 across the U.S.

Now the researchers have looked closer to Volkswagen's home base, examining the health impact from the 2.6 million affected cars sold in Germany under Volkswagen Group's brands VW, Audi, Skoda, and Seat. In a paper published today in Environmental Research Letters, the team reports that the manufacturer's emissions in excess of the test-stand limit value have had a significant effect on not just in Germany but across Europe.

The researchers estimate that 1,200 people in Europe will die early, each losing as much as a decade of their life, as a result of excess emissions generated between 2008 and 2015 by affected cars sold in Germany. Of these premature deaths, 500 will likely occur in Germany, meaning that more than 60 percent of premature mortalities stemming from those German-sold cars will occur in neighboring countries, most notably Poland, France, and the Czech Republic.

"Air pollution is very much transboundary," says co-author Steven Barrett, the Leonardo-Finmeccanica Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. "[Pollution] doesn't care about political boundaries; it just goes straight past. Thus, a car in Germany can easily have significant impacts in neighboring countries, especially in densely populated areas such as the European continent."

If Volkswagen can recall and retrofit affected vehicles to meet European standards by the end of 2017, this would avert 2,600 additional premature deaths, or 29,000 life years lost, and 4.1 billion Euros in corresponding health costs, which would otherwise be expected in the absence of a recall.

Barrett's co-authors from MIT are lead author and graduate student Guillaume Chossière, postdoc Akshay Ashok, research assistant Irene Dedoussi, and research scientist Raymond Speth. Sebastian Eastham of Harvard University and Robert Malina of Hasselt University in Belgium are also co-authors.

Something in the air

Barrett says that it's not surprising that Germany, and Europe as a whole, incur higher health impacts from Volkswagen's excess emissions, as compared to the U.S. Not only were more affected cars sold in Germany (2.6 million) than in the U.S. (482,000), differences in population density, driving behavior, and atmospheric conditions also help explain the aggravated health impacts across Europe.

For instance, Europe's average population density is about three times higher than the U.S. average, and historical data has shown that diesel cars in Germany are driven on average 20 percent more, in terms of annual mileage, compared to the average American car that was considered in the U.S. study. In other words, there are more affected cars on the road, generating emissions that affect a higher concentration of people.

Atmospheric conditions play a role, as well. NOx is emitted from the engine as a gas, which can be carried by winds over long distances before or while reacting with ammonia in the air to form fine particulates. Since the atmosphere in Europe happens to contain more ammonia than in the U.S., more fine particulates may form from a given amount of NOx. It is exposure to these fine particulates which has been shown to cause cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease. NOx emissions also contribute to the formation of ozone, another pollutant known to be detrimental to human health.

"It takes time for NOx to get converted into particulates, at which point, they could be 100 to 200 kilometers or further away from their source," Barrett says.

Excess emissions' health effects

The researchers arrived at their mortality estimates using a method similar to the one they adopted to assess Volkswagen's health impacts in the U.S. The team based their analysis in part on the German Federal Motor Transport Authority's measurements of emissions from Volkswagen cars.

They then used historical data on driving behavior in Germany to estimate the number of kilometers driven by each car per year and where drivers were likely to drive the most. From that, the researchers generated a map of excess emissions within Germany.

Barrett and his colleagues worked this emissions map into a simulation of the atmosphere, modeling where the NOx emissions traveled, given prevailing winds, temperature, and precipitation, and where the gas interacted with other compounds to form fine particulates and ozone.

The atmospheric models produced a map of fine particulates and a map of ozone, which the team then overlaid on population density maps across Europe. With these maps, they calculated people's exposure to Germany-derived excess emissions, for each country in the European Union. From these exposure estimates, the researchers calculated the increased risk of dying early in the population, using a "concentration response function"—a relationship between a person's exposure to a given dose of a pollutant and the person's related health risk.

"It ends up being about a one percent extra risk of dying early in a given year, per microgram per meter cubed of fine particles you're exposed to," Barrett says. "Typically that means that someone who dies early from air pollution ends up dying about a decade early."

Volkswagen and beyond

Overall, the researchers found that 1,200 premature deaths will likely occur as a result of excess emissions that have already been released into the atmosphere between 2008 and 2015. Of these, 500 early deaths occur in Germany, followed by 160 in Poland, 84 in France, and 72 in the Czech Republic, with the remainder split among other European countries.

The researchers performed the same analysis a second time, under a scenario in which Volkswagen fixes affected cars to meet regulatory standards by the end of 2017, generating no excess emissions starting in January 2018. Under this scenario, the company would avert 2,600 premature deaths, or 29,000 years of life lost.

Going forward, the researchers plan to expand their study of auto emissions' health impact, concentrating on diesel vehicles in Europe.

"It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions," Barrett says. "We don't know if other manufacturers have these defeat devices, but there is already evidence that many other vehicles in practice emit more than the applicable test-stand limit value. So we're trying to do this for all diesel vehicles."

Explore further

Volkswagen's emissions cheat to cause 60 premature deaths in US, study says

More information: Environmental Research Letters, … 088/1748-9326/aa5987
Journal information: Environmental Research Letters

Citation: Volkswagen's excess emissions will lead to 1,200 premature deaths in Europe, study says (2017, March 3) retrieved 15 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 03, 2017
It's amazing what you can 'prove' using statistics. I wonder if they have the names of those who will die?

Mar 03, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Mar 03, 2017
"Very sad that statistics continue to be misused."
Oh, the irony! This from the name-dropping, polar bear quote-miner...

Mar 03, 2017
Electric transportation can save us. Their e-Golf is good, but clearly an entry-level product, with only 100 mile range so far. It is fine for commuting and around town, and can be "filled up" in your driveway.

Mar 03, 2017
IMHO statistics are a predictive aid with an emphasis on aid.

One can always be more mindful of what they "drive" to what extent.

Mar 03, 2017
....and statistics show that subverted governments and their hidden oligarchical ownership (and hence severe manipulation) have killed millions and will continue to do so, unless stopped through raising human awareness. Tough to do when the same groups and individual logically moved to control mainstream media.

Stat show that the sum of all diesel and gas vehicles in the EU has killed many times more than this 1200 and will continue to do so.

The sit down toilet is bad for the body, we are designed to squat. Sit down toilets have killed many thousands prematurely.

Stars stats stats......

Mar 03, 2017
humans humans humans.....

The planet will have a collective sigh of relief when we finally extinct ourselves.

You can almost hear it anticipating.

Mar 03, 2017
blaming Volkswagen is easy, we have a collective responsibility, many governments knew all car manufactures have different results on the road than in the lab and they ignored that problem because of 'it's better for the economy if we just ignore it. it are the people you voted for who failed. even now some governments are dragging their feet for the new norms.

Mar 03, 2017
It's unfortunate Volkswagen has become the whipping boy in the emissions scandal. Most if not all Car manufacturers have been almost forced to skew results due to unrealistic emission requirements. It's a business wide issue, not just Volkswagen. If they are all held accountable, we can expect positive change. I hate the misrepresentation of facts in these articles. It happens all the time. How many times have you seen articles say Elon Musk was the inventor of the Hyper Loop? I wish they would simple research and get their facts straight. Even Wikipedia has that one right.

Mar 04, 2017
How much "premature" these deaths should be? By one second, day, week or year?

Mar 04, 2017
For instance, Europe's average population density is about three times higher than the U.S. average

That number is fudged by the huge empty bit in the middle of the US. 2/3 of the people are living on the east and west coasts, and where in the case of Europe there would be 200 million more people, in the US there's the flyover country.


compare and contrast:


The middle american population density is comparable to Lapland. Everyone's packed in at the coasts and in the megacities. Where most Americans live, the average population density is actually comparable to France.

Mar 04, 2017
Here's the european map missing from the above:

Mar 04, 2017
That is not the topic. The topic is the pollution caused by ICE.

Do you use one?

Mar 04, 2017
It's unfortunate Volkswagen has become the whipping boy in the emissions scandal. Most if not all Car manufacturers have been almost forced to skew results due to unrealistic emission requirements. It's a business wide issue, not just Volkswagen.

You can leave the "almost" out. There's no question the regulations are unrealistic and contradictory to their purpose.

The limits are so strict that gasoline cars simply can't make it. The 2012 regulation limit is 120 gCO2/km which is equivalent to 45 MPG - only diesel cars actually achieve that without cheating.

The EU taxes fuel consumption by high gasoline tax, and tax on new vehicles where they exceed the regulation limits of CO2/km. That means the companies that are honest about the fuel consumption see lower sales as their cars turn out more expensive.

Ever since the regulations started applying in 1992, the proportion of diesel cars has risen from 10% to 53% because people just can't afford the consumption taxes.

Mar 04, 2017
That is not the topic. The topic is the pollution caused by ICE.

Yes it is. The pollution question depends on where the pollution actually is, and how many people it affects. The US numbers are lower because the population density is assumed to be lower, when in reality there's just this huge bit of empty land skewing the numbers.

Where nobody lives, nobody drives.

Mar 04, 2017
Look at the title of the thread.

We can rectify this by the use of electric vehicles, and will do so. But cars last a long time now, and it can take time to do a significant retrofit of the populace.

Mar 04, 2017
We can rectify this by the use of electric vehicles

First you must come up with electric vehicles that people can actually afford to buy.

Not some tiny hatchbacks that cost twice the price of a normal car, have half the useful lifespan, and the range equivalent of a 2 gallon fuel tank which gets smaller as the car ages.

It's the same reason why people in the EU buy diesels rather than hybrids - they're more affordable and you don't have to replace a battery 10 years down the road.

Mar 04, 2017
Prove to me that I will have to replace the battery in ten years.

Meanwhile, there are no oil changes, no filters, no leaks, no tune-ups, no adjustments, no emissions checks, no trips to the gas station or oil changer, and you can "fill" up at home, between trips and at night.

Mar 04, 2017
You can buy for example, a Skoda Fabia diesel for about £14k ($17k) which gets a real-world mileage of 49 MPG-US

Meanwhile a Toyota Prius costs from £24k ($30k) up and the claimed economy is 78 MPG-US but the actual real world average mileage is just 47 MPG-US. It the manufacturer didn't lie about the fuel economy and cheat the tests, even the Prius would not pass the 95 gCO2/km limit that will take place in the EU by 2020.

The diesel car is simply a better deal. It has no gimmicks or gotchas like having to plug in at night to achieve the mileage. That's why people buy them instead, and the result is air pollution.


Mar 04, 2017
Nope. I told you ours cost $17,600, and we have no gasoline bill, and essentially no maintenance. We bought one after the new ones came out, and with the federal and state tax advantages, saved another $10k. If we paid for the power for it, it would cost about 3 cents/mile. How much does it cost to operate an ICE-equipped vehicle? Be sure to include maintenance.

Mar 04, 2017
Prove to me that I will have to replace the battery in ten years.

Easy. How many miles do you drive in a year?

Suppose an electric car has a 30 kWh battery pack and consumes 380 Wh per mile. Further suppose that the battery has an endurance of 2000 cycles. That means 80 miles per cycle (charge), and 160,000 miles total endurance.

At 15k miles per year (288mi/week, 41 miles a day), you're looking at a battery replacement after 10½ years. but you also lose some percentage of capacity per year, which accelerates the cycle rate per mile so the death of the battery comes a couple years earlier. In practice around year 8 or 9.

Cellphone batteries are actually very comparable to the use patterns of an EV. They're similiarily sized to the demand, where one charge lasts for 1-3 days of use - similiarily to a 30 kWh EV battery which is enough for 1-2 days of driving. Phone batteries last for ~4 years because they're charged up to higher voltages which is harder on them.

Mar 04, 2017
Nope. I told you ours cost $17,600,

1) nobody believes you because you're lying your ass off
2) the E-Golf starts from $36k by manufacturer MRSP

Mar 04, 2017
Prove to me that I will have to replace the battery in ten years


for starters, it depends on the battery and how it is charged, as well as how it is used
overcharging or repeated charging while still at high charge screws up the battery - it can also build a memory which limits further use

most EV batteries will also be regularly charged as they don't have the range of an ICE, and this doesn't even get to the point of other issues, like towing, weather or similar things that can affect duration of life

5 years is more typical: http://auto.howst...ery4.htm

manufacturers typically suggest every 2-3 years or have a mileage suggestion, usually under 100K, and that means less than 4 yrs

prove that wrong by linking VW specs, if you can

Mar 04, 2017
@Captain Stumpy

Those are in reference to lead batteries and nicads. Not really relevant.

But you're absolutely correct: EV manufacturers just won't give more than 8 years of warranty for the traction battery, and for smaller sizes they also specify 100k miles or 160k miles - for a very good reason: they know the batteries won't last much longer.

For larger batteries 60 kWh and up the miles don't matter because you won't exhaust the cycles before the battery simply rots of old age. For example, if you lose 3% of the initial capacity per year of age, by year 10 you're down -28% in range just by holding the car in the garage.

The question of "dead or alive" then becomes, whether the car is useful to you when it can only do 40-50 miles instead of 80. It seems, in the glorious electric future, the poor are restricted to within a spitting distance of home or risk getting stranded with their second-hand electric cars.

Mar 04, 2017
Those are in reference to lead batteries and nicads. Not really relevant
well- true, but...

there are more reference links at the bottom of the second link i posted for super-jeenyous-engineer-a1c gracie

i did that so she could use those to present a factual case (rather than the playground "i'm real and better than everyone else" BS argument usually used)

that is if she can figure out how to use the above link to begin with

that is assuming much, i know, considering the displays to date

Mar 04, 2017
Meanwhile, there are no oil changes, no filters, no leaks, no tune-ups, no adjustments, no emissions checks, no trips to the gas station or oil changer, and you can "fill" up at home, between trips and at night.

If you don't take your car in for maintenance even once in a decade, that's a fine way to make sure it won't have any resale value.

There's battery coolant fluid, brake fluid, brake pads, shocks, springs, intake air filters, wipers, lights, plus there's also a regular 12 Volt battery for the electronics and auxillaries which needs replacement every few years... then there's checking the joints and wheel alignment, the tires themselves, rust on the body, sand damage on the windshield...

Even Tesla recommends annual service, and they have a no service - no warraty - policy:


Tesla Model S Service Contract: $600/Year, Or Warranty Voided

Mar 04, 2017
Though of course, the E-Golf that gkam pretends to own doesn't have battery coolant fluid because it simply doesn't have battery cooling, or heating. When the temperature drops below 0 C it cannot be quick-charged at a charge point because the battery is frozen and the attempt would damage it.

Mar 04, 2017
The e-Golf does not use liquid cooling for the battery. And it runs fine at 0C.

And we have saved 740 gallons of expensively-blended California gasoline.

Mar 04, 2017
I wonder if the car Eikka uses has a 100,000 mile engine guarantee? Mine does, the EV.

Yeah, after a full year, we took it in - they rotated the tires, because that is all they could dredge up to do. No filters, no leaks, and so far, no issues at all.

It is the EV which will save VW.

Mar 05, 2017
Agree all evidence is skewed to profitability. But the result is 50% MORE CO IN THE ATMOSPHERE and it comes at the cost of knowing each CO will need to attach a free oxygen to become CO2.
A clear eyed look at history would indicate that the Toba volcano explosion of 70,000 and the Phlagarean Field explosion 40,000 which did for centuries reverse magnetic polarity (les Champs Event), would give any thinking individual pause.
Consider that science says that ALL OF US LOSE 50% OF OUR LUNG CAPACITY BY 3O. A stem cell has been discovered in a cancer survivor that is missing in most of us that REGROWS ALEVOLI. I suspect that it is available but turned off by epigenetic action.
Consider that WE ARE THE SAVAGES as the smarter us perished when the plasma arcing disrupted the atomic balance (W Thornhill) and turned Earth into a gravity well.

Mar 05, 2017
Governments can only do so much.

The rest is personal responsibility.

Mar 07, 2017
Electric cars are effectively mostly coal-powered in Germany, by any measure far more particulate and ammonia polluting than VW's diesels.

Mar 07, 2017
Show me the measure.

Stationary sources are usually cleaner than mobile sources/measure of fuel. I want to see your numbers.

Mar 10, 2017
Not to worry. By the time Trump is done 1,200 will seem like a drop in the bucket.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more