Volkswagen emissions scandal: Britons dying due to toxic fumes travelling across North Sea from Germany

Hundreds of Britons will die because Volkswagen lied about emissions, MIT researchers claim. Photo / 123RF
Hundreds of Britons will die because Volkswagen lied about emissions, MIT researchers claim. Photo / 123RF

Britons are dying because of the Volkswagen emission scandal with dozens killed from fumes travelling across the North Sea from Germany and 'many times' more killed by pollution from cars on UK roads, a study suggests.

Between 2008 and 2015 Volkswagen rigged diesel cars so they could pass stringent environmental tests while emitting dangerous levels of pollution.

More than one million VW cars in Britain were fitted with 'defeat devices' which pumped deadly nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere at banned quantities.

Environmental researchers at MIT studied the impact of the scandal across Europe and found that based on the 2.6 million cars sold in Germany alone, 2,600 people will die up to 10 years early even if a complete recall is completed by the end of this year.

Yet only 1,100 of the deaths will actually occur in Germany, with more than 60 per cent of the premature mortalities affecting neighbouring countries, including Britain, Poland, France and the Czech Republic because pollution spreads on the wind.

The team estimates that 30 people will die in Britain from fumes which have travelled across the North Sea, but said the final death toll could be 'many times' greater. If the research was extrapolated to Britain's 1.2 million VWs more than 450 people may die as a result, although pollution in the UK is mitigated to a certain extent because we are an island.

"Pollution doesn't care about political boundaries; it just goes straight past," said study co-author Steven Barrett, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.

"Thus, a car in Germany can easily have significant impacts in neighboring countries, especially in densely populated areas such as the European continent.

"We estimate that about 30 early deaths in the UK are attributable to the excess VW emissions in Germany. If the impact of UK emissions were added to this then the figure would be very significantly higher - possibly many times higher given the additional million affected vehicles in the UK.

"Great Britain is an island so emissions from the UK will likely cause fewer deaths per tonne of Nitrogen Oxide than in Germany. But it's remarkable that emissions as far away as Germany can contribute to UK air quality degradation."

VW Group claims to have fixed 470,000 cars in the UK and say they are now repairing cars at a rate of 20,000 a week although the company insists that vehicles in Britain never had defeat devices and were only being recalled to give drivers "peace of mind".

However last month MPs accused Volkswagen UK boss Paul Willis of telling "absolute blatant lies" when he repeated the stance at the Transport Select Committee.

Researchers at MIT also warned that Europe was more severely affected by the scandal than the US, not only because far more cars were sold, but also because of higher population density and atmospheric conditions.

Europe's average population density is about three times higher than the US average, and historical data has shown that diesel cars are driven on average 20 per cent more, in terms of annual mileage, compared with the average American car.

The atmosphere in Europe also contains more ammonia than in the US, so more deadly particulates may form the same amount of nitrogen dioxide.

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

The mortality rate was calculated on the basis that there is a one per cent extra risk of dying early in a given year per microgram per meter cubed of fine particles a person is exposed to.

Prof Barrett added: "Typically that means that someone who dies early from air pollution ends up dying about a decade early.

"It seems unlikely that Volkswagen is the only company with issues with excess emissions.

"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."

In the wake of the scandal, the Department of Transport began a £1.1million retesting programme of 37 vehicles from 20 different carmakers to determine if others were also using similar defeat devices to pass emissions tests.

In addition to the increase in premature deaths, previous research has shown that the excess emissions are likely to contribute directly to more than 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions.

Individuals will also experience more than 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.

The scandal could cost British taxpayers nearly £300 million in healthcare and social costs.

The team found 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,

The research was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


Volkswagen emissions scandal

What did VW do?
The company falsified emissions data on its diesel vehicles, pretending they were cleaner than they are.

How exactly..?
By installing a piece of software into computers on its cars that recognise when the car is being tested - a so-called "defeat device". This fine-tunes the engine's performance to limit nitrogen oxide emissions. When used on the road, the emissions levels shoot back up.

How widespread is the problem?
11m cars worldwide had the software installed; 1.2m of them were in the UK.

Which models are involved?
The allegations, which have been admitted by VW, cover the Jetta, Beetle, Audi A3 and Golf models from 2009 to 2015 and the Passat in 2014 and 2015. Audi, Seat and Skoda cars are also affected, as well as VW vans. Some diesel and petrol vehicles also have "irregularities" around carbon dioxide emissions.

What happens next?
VW offered to fix affected models and started the recall in January 2016. It is facing investigations in over a dozen countries as well as lawsuits from motorists.

As of December 2016, the company had not reached a compensation agreement with British motorists and the transport minister was considering legal action against VW. At the same time, the EU Commission named the UK among seven countries against which it will take legal action for their inadequate consumer protection regarding this scandal.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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