September 30, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 5Comment

I’m still shaking my head and asking out loud, “what were they thinking?” Am I getting this right?: Volkswagen installed software so its diesel-polluting vehicles would deceive EPA-mandated emissions tests. And buyers of the vehicles were deceived by Volkswagen. The company led them to believe they could get a car with power, performance, high miles per gallon, and “clean diesel,” while not suffering from sticker shock.

What those owners and the rest of us didn’t know was the price we were paying in terms of public health. Brad Plumer at Vox offers a back-of-the-envelope estimate on the air pollution-related deaths attributed to Volkswagen’s diesel emissions fraud.  He explains:

”Volkswagen’s 482,000 problematic US cars are currently emitting between 5,800 to 14,200 additional tons of nitrogen oxide pollution (NOx) each year, assuming the cars are driven the US average.”

He extrapolates that to the 11 million affected vehicles worldwide and calculates:

“…between 86,800 and 212,500 additional tons of NOx emissions per year.”

Using EPA’s risk assessment for the number of premature deaths for every ton of NOx emitted from vehicles in the US, Plumer estimates:

“…the extra pollution from Volkswagen’s US cars can be expected to lead to an additional 5 to 27 premature deaths per year. If we extrapolated worldwide to all 11 million vehicles, that would come to somewhere between 74 and 404 premature deaths each year.”

I’ve been following Plumer’s reporting on VW’s pollution scheme after first reading this in his September 23 story:

“Since 2009, Volkswagen had been installing elaborate software in 482,000 ‘clean diesel’ vehicles sold in the US, so that the cars’ pollution controls only worked when being tested for emissions. The rest of the time, the vehicles could freely spew hazardous, smog-forming compounds.”

In my small neighborhood, there are at least four VW diesel Jetta Sportwagens. Here’s a photo of one of them.

Teya_s VW
Teya Rosenberg’s red, diesel VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI (Sept 2015).

It’s courtesy of Dr. Teya Rosenberg who is a professor in the English Department at Texas State University, where she teaches children’s literature, fantasy, and Canadian literature. She wrote the following on her Facebook page and gave me permission to repost it.

“Here is my car, shiny red in the North Atlantic sun. It is a great road trip car: excellent mileage, fun to drive, enough room for all the books and files and crap I carry around.

“It is also, as we have all recently heard, a symbol for the corruption and cynicism of big business in this world where the free market and big profits are gods and government regulation and oversight is considered bad, bad-bad, bad… 2013 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI (diesel).

“Can’t sell it, can’t park it (at least until I drive the 3,500 miles back to TX), tempted to stop making payments on it.”

Thanks Teya for this well-stated dilemma of a VW diesel owner. I’ve been wondering about the thoughts of other VW owners of the suspect vehicles. What about the family whose child who suffers from asthma? Or an owner who herself is challenged by a respiratory disease. What’s it like to know that the vehicle you thought was a “clean diesel” is actually spewing NOx at 15 to 35 times the EPA limit?  For those who are p.o.’d, you’re in good company.



5 thoughts on “Volkswagen’s deceit: public health and my neighbor’s dilemma

  1. Some of us have heightened sensitivity to ground level ozone, caused by ground level smog, caused by ground level criminal VW’s and other polluting vehicles. I’ve read that 10-20% of the population suffer from this affliction. One of my older brothers told me that I was sensitive to “smog” about 60 years ago. I didn’t really confirm his diagnosis until recently when I saw that unusually high levels of ozone on an EPA map correlated perfectly with my days of excruciating throat pain.

    On behalf of myself and the millions of other people who have had their lives restricted by ozone sensitivity, I would like to launch a class action suit against VW for having inflicted extreme pain and suffering on a large part of the human race.

    Do I sound resentful? You bet I am! The thought of all those nasty self centered VW drivers zooming around me on their way to farfegnugen makes me wish that RPGs were legal. And if you want, I will tell you how I Really feel about this…..

    Have a nice day….

  2. I stood at the only diesel pump at the station with my VW TDI the other day, noting how conspicuous I was, totally convinced that everyone other customer was fuming at me…’Look at that guy at the diesel…thought he was superior to us…really he was just polluting my town the whole time…what a sap.’
    Damn if I didn’t feel a twang of guilt and a little angry at these imaginary insults.

  3. The emotional and economic distress of environmentally conscious VW owners is understandable, although I suspect that the vast majority of people do not give a second though to the VW pollution scandal, so owners needn’t hide in shame. But it would be very interesting and probably very important to have the author’s first line answered. What were THEY thinking at VW? Who were THEY? How many people at VW were involved in the decision? Was it a single programmer? Their supervisor? The department manager? The whole department?Mechanical Engineers? Chemical Engineers? Upper management? Environmental lawyers? We don’t know. What sort of coercion if any was involved? Was it just a childish prank that everyone loved and which became institutionalized? Was it a conscious attack on government regulation? An attempt to keep their cars appealing to performance buyers? Were the people involved ignorant of the effects of NOx on the general population, or did they know but simple consider the damage they caused a cost of doing business?

    VW has many smart people working for them and they will, I suppose, deflect blame enough to stay in business. While we still have them in the very vulnerable position of being in the public spotlight, though, it might be very good for us to put pressure on VW to explain how this happened, to have them explain what they are doing to prevent further disasters, and to have them implement programming fixes to all the vehicles involved immediately.

  4. Perspective people 400 deaths/ per year from excess NOx is an insignificant number compared to 7 billion plus people in the world . 10 times as many people die in the US choking on food each year. Perhaps we should require all food be blended into smoothies to cut down on the unnecessary choking deaths .

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