If there’s anything that current American politics has taught us is that, no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. Thus, it should come as no surprise, I suppose, that Dieselgate, the automotive scandal that keeps on giving, has yet another chapter. What is surprising is that, like the President of the United States, whose scandals can seem to find no bottom, the German auto industry’s reputation continues to find new lows.
According to The New York Times, in an effort to rebut the World Health Organization’s 2012 decision to classify diesel exhaust as a carcinogen, the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) — an organization funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW — put 10 monkeys in a sealed room and pumped it fuel of diesel fumes. Oh, the automakers didn’t do it themselves. In fact, neither did the study group, which commissioned the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico to do its dirty business. But the effect was the same: Researchers put 10 monkeys in an airtight chamber — oh, but they put cartoons on a TV to calm their nerves — and then, for four hours, plumbed in exhaust fumes from a Beetle TDI.
It gets better. According to the NYT, the director of the EUGT was still trying to get the final report on what one presumes it hoped was a favourable study as late as August 2016. That’s almost a year after Volkswagen had admitted installing the defeat devices that cranked up pollution levels in its diesel-powered cars. And if that’s not bad enough, the NYT claims Volkswagen ensured that the specific Beetle TDI used in the test, unlike the hundreds of thousands of VWs it had sold to an unsuspecting public, actually did conform to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. Yes, in case you’re not getting the inference here, Volkswagen wouldn’t dare subject monkeys to the same fumes it expected us to accept.
For those who’ve forgotten about the scandal, Volkswagen installed illegal software called a “defeat device” on some of its 2009 to 2015 diesel-powered “TDI” cars and trucks that would allow them to pass stringent emissions tests in testing laboratories, but emit as much as 40 times as much nitrogen oxides as the 0.05 gram per mile limit allows when they were driven on the road. Yes, a little Jetta TDI, barely sipping five litres for every 100 kilometres, was pumping out as much as two grams of lung-clogging nitrogen oxide every mile. In the NYT’s own inimitable terms, that’s “more nitrogen oxides than a long-haul truck.”
Despite all the attention focused on diesels since September 2015, the bad news keeps on coming. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation — a research group instrumental in getting Dieselgate in front of the public — because of more stringent testing, European long-haul trucks often pump out less than half the nitrogen oxides than even Euro 6-approved passenger cars do. Meanwhile, a study by a UK consumer advocacy group revealed that Nissan, Renault and Ford had among the highest levels of average NOx emissions, while Mini and Jaguar were among the cleanest. At the polar extremes of the test, two Minis tested averaged just 0.08 grams of NOx per kilometre driven — meeting Euro 6 standards — while two Jeep products tested pumped out a whopping 1.75 gm/km.
Elevated levels of nitrogen oxide emissions are blamed for all manner of health issues. One study by the European Parliament says that 72,000 people died prematurely as the result of ingesting nitrogen oxide. According to the Guardian, the UK saw about 12,000 premature deaths in 2013 as a result of nitrogen dioxide. Even that, however, pales in comparison to the 20,000-plus that died the same year in Italy as a result of NOx-related lung issues. Little wonder, then, cities like London, Paris, and Copenhagen are restricting or banning automobile traffic in their cores. And there can be little doubt that Dieselgate has been the impetus for France, England and now possibly even California looking to ban sales of internal combustion engines by 2040.
Even exposures below fatal have a deleterious effect on the human condition, inflaming the lining of the lungs and reducing immunity to infections. The Southern California Children’s Study showed that lung function levels among nine to 16 year olds was lower in communities with higher NO2 concentration. Evidence also shows that emissions are not equally distributed. Obviously, rural areas are not as polluted as urban centres, unless you are located within 200 metres of a major highway, at which point you might be more exposed than even someone living on an busy city street.
But we’ve long known all of that, even if the EUGT was in complete denial. Its research — despite a few EUGT studies saying things like low emissions zones were ineffectual — was long drowned out by the research linking nitrogen oxide to serious health issues. The sad part about this latest news is that those poor monkeys had to watch those cartoons for nothing.
Author’s note: Automotive News is reporting that Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, wants an investigation into the study, saying, “We believe the animal tests in this study were unnecessary and repulsive. We explicitly distance ourselves from the study.” BMW is also rejecting the research, Automotive News reporting that the carmaker had taken no part in the study’s design or methods. The chairman of Volkswagen, Hans Dieter Poetsch, meanwhile, has demanded an inquiry into the affair, calling the tests “totally incomprehensible,” insisting that the matter must be “investigated fully and unconditionally.” Like I said, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving.