Recall of affected cars by the end of 2016 would avoid more than 130 further early deaths, research shows.
Nearly 60 people will die prematurely from the excess air pollution caused by Volkswagen cheating emissions tests in the US, according to a new study.
The first peer-reviewed estimate of the public health impacts of VW’s rigging of tests for 482,000 diesel cars in the US found that if the company recalls all the affected cars by the end of 2016, more than 130 further early deaths could be avoided.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on Thursday, concluded that most of the 59 premature deaths were caused by particulate pollution (87%) with the rest caused by ozone exposure (13%). Most of the deaths were estimated to have occurred on the east and west coasts of the US.
The number of deaths was reached by looking at the amount of extra pollution emitted between 2008 and 2015 by the VW cars fitted with the defeat devices.
Particulate and ozone air pollution in the US was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to cause around 164,300 premature deaths in 2010. Diesels still make up a relatively small share of the US car fleet.
As well as the early deaths, the researchers estimated that the extra pollution from VW’s cars caused around 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, 34 hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiac issues, and 120,000 days when people had to restrict their physical activity as a result. The economic cost of the health impacts was put at $910m.
Air quality expert Dr Gary Fuller, of King’s College London, said the research was a good assessment of the health impacts but it should not be assumed that the numbers could be extrapolated for other parts of the world, such as the UK.
“The very small number of diesels in the US, and the density of European cities means people are much more exposed to traffic emissions [in Europe] than in the US,” he said. He added that the study may have underestimated the total number of premature deaths because it did not consider the direct impact of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide.
Daniel Kammen, the journal’s editor-in-chief and professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, who did not work on the study, said it was a “rigorous evaluation” of “potentially exceeding serious” impacts.
The study assumed the cars travelled 40.5bn km between 2008 and 2015, resulting in excess NOx emissions of 36.7m kg because of the cheating of emissions tests.
VW has admitted that around 11m cars have been affected by the rigging worldwide, with 1.2m in the UK. It emerged early this week that the UK government has only one £100,000 machine able to test real-world emissions.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “The VW emissions scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Many cars that genuinely meet emissions standards in the lab actually produce much higher levels of emissions when used in the real world. It is clear, therefore, that we need a commitment to routine, independent real-world testing on all cars.”
On Wednesday, carmakers in Europe won a one-year delay to such real-world tests, despite the VW revelations.