Dozens of deaths linked to VW’s pol­lu­tion dodge

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY SETH BOREN­STEIN

Volk­swa­gen’s pol­lu­tion- con­trol chi­canery has not just been vic­tim­less tin­ker­ing, killing be­tween five and 20 peo­ple in the United States an­nu­ally in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press sta­tis­ti­cal and com­puter anal­y­sis.

The soft­ware that the com­pany ad­mit­ted us­ing to get around gov­ern­ment emis­sions lim­its al­lowed VWs to spew enough pol­lu­tion to cause some­where be­tween 16 and 94 deaths over seven years, with the an­nual count in­creas­ing more re­cently as more of the diesels were on the road. The to­tal cost has been well over US$100 mil­lion.

That’s just in the United States. It’s likely far dead­lier and costlier in Europe, where more VW diesels were sold, engi­neers said. Sci­en­tists and ex­perts said the death toll in Europe could be as high as hun­dreds each year, though they cau­tion that it is hard to take Amer­i­can health and air qual­ity com­puter mod­els and trans­late them to a more densely pop­u­lated Europe.

“Sta­tis­ti­cally, we can’t point out who died be­cause of this pol­icy, but some peo­ple have died or likely died as a re­sult of this,” said Carnegie Mel­lon en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer pro­fes­sor Peter Adams. He cal­cu­lates the cost of air pol­lu­tion with a so­phis­ti­cated com­puter model that he and the AP used in its anal­y­sis.

Com­puter soft­ware al­lowed VW diesel cars to spew be­tween 10 to 40 times more ni­tro­gen ox­ides (NOx) than al­lowed by reg­u­la­tion, mak­ing this “clearly a con­cern for air qual­ity and public health,” said Janet McCabe, act­ing air qual­ity chief for the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

Ni­tro­gen ox­ides mostly form smog — that murky, dirty air that makes it hard to see and for some peo­ple to breathe — but also am­plify a dead­lier, larger prob­lem: tiny par­ti­cles of soot. Nu­mer­ous med­i­cal stud­ies show those tiny par­ti­cles cause about 50,000 deaths a year in the United States, mostly from heart prob­lems.

Ni­tro­gen ox­ides can travel hun­dreds of miles, so pol­lu­tion spewed in Pittsburgh, Penn­syl­va­nia can be felt on the east coast, Adams said.

How Much Pol­lu­tion Costs So­ci­ety

Ex­perts cal­cu­late how much pol­lu­tion costs so­ci­ety by look­ing at the value of lost lives. In this case, Adams and other said the lost lives — val­ued at US$8.6 mil­lion apiece — over­whelm other costs such as lost work days or hos­pi­tal costs. The over­all an­nual cost of the ex­tra pol­lu­tants from the VW diesels ranged from US$40 mil­lion to US$170 mil­lion, en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors cal­cu­lated.

“Even the small in­crease in NOx from VW diesel emis­sions is likely to have wors­ened pol­lu­tion along the road­ways where they have trav­eled, and af­fected the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple,” said Dan Greenbaum, pres­i­dent of the Health Ef­fects In­sti­tute in Bos­ton.

“To say mil­lions of peo­ple of peo­ple are breath­ing poor air as the re­sult of that is not off the mark,” said Greenbaum, who runs the in­sti­tute that is funded by both the EPA and the auto in­dus­try to serve as an in­de­pen­dent ar­biter of the science.

In a re­sponse Satur­day night to an ear­lier re­quest for com­ment, Volk­swa­gen said the EPA has noted that the af­fected ve­hi­cles do not present a safety haz­ard and are le­gal to drive. “Gen­eral al­le­ga­tions re­gard­ing links be­tween NOX emis­sions from these af­fected ve­hi­cles and spe­cific health ef­fects are un­ver­i­fied. We have re­ceived no con­firmed re­ports that the emis­sions from such ve­hi­cles caused any ac­tual health prob­lem,” the com­pany said in a state­ment.

The cal­cu­la­tions should be put in con­text of air that is get­ting dra­mat­i­cally cleaner in the United States, ex­perts said. Also, the deaths from ex­tra pol­lu­tion are dwarfed by the 35,000 peo­ple in the U.S. a year who die in auto ac­ci­dents and are closer to the an­nual U.S. death toll of spi­der or snake bites.

The AP cal­cu­lated how much pol­lu­tion was spewed year by year, start­ing with that broad 10 times to 40 times emis­sions level es­ti­mate from the EPA, then fac­tor­ing in mileage and car num­ber to­tals from EPA, the car com­pany and Kel­ley Blue Book.

An Up­per and Lower Limit of Ex­tra

Ni­tro­gen Ox­ides Pol­lu­tion

The re­sults show an up­per and lower limit of ex­tra ni­tro­gen ox­ides pol­lu­tion al­lowed by VW’s sub­terfuge. The AP took those fig­ures to sci­en­tists who pre­vi­ously cre­ated a so­phis­ti­cated com­puter pro­gram that looks at air move­ment and nu­mer­ous epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies on the health ef­fects of pol­lu­tants. The re­sult was a rough es­ti­mate on deaths and costs to so­ci­ety based on a cer­tain amount of pol­lu­tion trig­ger­ing each death.

The EPA has its own open source com­puter model that cal­cu­lates death and so­cial costs of emis­sions, roughly find­ing it takes nearly 1,179 tonnes of ni­tro­gen ox­ides to cause one death. Us­ing that cal­cu­la­tion and AP’s emis­sion to­tals, the to­tal death fig­ures over the past seven years range from 12 to 69, slightly lower than the AP cal­cu­la­tions.

The AP ran its cal­cu­la­tions and re­sults by more than a dozen ex­perts in emis­sions, risk and public health. They all con­firmed the cal­cu­la­tions and re­sults seemed right. One sci­en­tist had even done a sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis on his own and came in­de­pen­dently to the same con­clu­sion. The ex­perts were mostly univer­sity pro­fes­sors or from re­search in­sti­tutes. They were not en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of auto com­pa­nies.

But engi­neers cau­tion that these fig­ures come with many caveats and are ball­park es­ti­mates. They rely on many as­sump­tions and a range of po­ten­tial emis­sions per car. Air pol­lu­tion im­pacts on peo­ple are usu­ally cal­cu­lated on a lo­cal level be­cause that’s where it is felt, and it changes from place to place. But these cal­cu­la­tions were broad­ened to a na­tional level, which adds more un­cer­tainty.

The com­puter sim­u­la­tion that made the death cal­cu­la­tions use con­ser­va­tive med­i­cal stud­ies as their base­line. Other epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies would more than dou­ble the deaths and health costs, said Adams and model co-cre­ator Jin­hyok Heo of Cor­nell Univer­sity.

Chris Frey, an en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at North Carolina State Univer­sity, has been test­ing the VW diesels in real world con­di­tions, driv­ing more than 100 miles with mon­i­tors in the car tailpipes. He found pol­lu­tion 10 times higher than the fed­eral stan­dard, and no­ticed that the worst pol­lu­tion came as he got on to highways and in stopand-go traf­fic. Those less de­sir­able ar­eas are where poorer peo­ple live, Greenbaum and other ex­perts said.

Since 2008, VW sold more than 10 mil­lion VW diesel cars in Europe, com­pared with less than half a mil­lion in the United States. In Europe, the pop­u­la­tion is more densely packed in ur­ban ar­eas, mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to added air pol­lu­tion, sev­eral ex­perts said.

“As­sum­ing most of the cars are in Europe, it’s pretty sim­ple to es­ti­mate that it could go as high as hun­dreds,” said Robert Ro­hde, a physi­cist and lead sci­en­tist at the Berke­ley Earth team that has es­ti­mated death tolls of air pol­lu­tion in the past.

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