Data shows emissions cheating cost 5 to 20 lives a year
By Seth Borenstein
WASHINGTON - Volkswagen's pollution-control chicanery has not been victimless tinkering, but in recent years has killed between five and 20 people in the United States annually , 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 $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 engineering 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 can be felt on the East Coast, Adams said.
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 $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 $40 million to $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," the company said in a statement.
The AP calculated how much pollution was spewed year by year, starting with the emissions level estimate from the EPA of 10 times to 40 times more than allowed, then factoring in mileage and car totals from EPA, the car company, and Kelley Blue Book.