Sep. 20 2016

Tallying the Health Costs of VW’s Emissions Cheat

Andrea Baccarelli Uses EPA’s air pollution assessment tool to calculate the potential impact of one year of added emissions from the company’s non-compliant vehicles

In a settlement earlier this year, Volkswagen admitted to installing software in nearly 500,000 diesel cars to circumvent federal emissions tests for nitrogen oxides, chemicals known to be harmful to human health. In a new study, Andrea Baccarelli, Chair and Leon Hess Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, calculates that a single year of elevated emissions from affected vehicles could lead to as many as 50 premature deaths, 3,000 lost workdays, and a $423 million pricetag.

“Emissions of nitrogen oxides 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 Baccarelli.

Nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, the two chemicals that make up nitrogen oxides or NOx, cause lung irritation and may weaken the body’s defenses against respiratory infections and exacerbate asthma and pollen allergies. They also play a role in the formation of ozone and particulate matter—two significant health risks in their own right. More than half of NOx emissions in the United States come from automotive emissions.

In the new study, Baccarelli and his collaborators used the EPA’s Co-Benefits Risk Assessment Model (COBRA), a peer-reviewed tool, to estimate the health and economic costs of increased levels of NOx. The approach is similar to what the EPA uses for regulatory impact analysis.

Results appear in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Policy. In a 12-month period, the study finds, there could be as many as 660 excess asthma exacerbations, 14 hospital admissions due to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and nearly 3,000 lost days of work. Premature deaths accounted for the bulk of economic costs, with estimates ranging from $42 million to $418 million.

The health effects of the non-compliant cars Volkswagen marketed as “clean diesel” are almost certainly substantially worse than these estimates for several reasons, says the researchers.

The study looks at a single year of added emissions when in fact Volkswagen installed the cheating software from 2008 to 2015, yet most of the affected vehicles have been on the road for years. Their analysis is also limited to the relationship between NOx and particulate matter—not ozone, another lung irritant.

In addition, the researchers examined emissions from 482,000 cars using 2.0-liter diesel engines, not additional non-compliant cars with 3.0-liter diesel engines. They also didn’t account for the approximately 800,000 diesel and gas vehicles Volkswagen admits may have underreported carbon dioxide emissions.

On June 28, Volkswagen agreed to pay as much $14.7 billion in an agreement involving lawyers for owners of affected vehicles and government officials, admitting it installed software to disable NOx emission control systems during real-world driving. The bulk of the funds will pay for taking affected cars off the road or retrofitting them. From the remainder, $2.7 billion is set aside for environmental cleanup, and $2 billion, for initiatives promoting the use of zero-emission vehicles in the U.S. Going forward, the company also faces criminal charges and civil penalties related to violations of the Clean Air Act.

Baccarelli says that while his study demonstrates that emissions from non-compliant Volkswagen vehicles had a sizable impact on human health, more in-depth analyses by officials would likely be part of any decision regarding the size of penalties. Nevertheless, he says, the research supports the idea that future regulations should consider more stringent emissions standards and compliance audits that focus on real-world conditions.

“More Americans die from car pollution than car accidents. It’s crucial that the government officials they serve know the extent of the damage done by the malicious actions of this company to public health and the economy,” said Baccarelli.