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The findings of a new study suggest that pollution caused by Volkswagen TDI 2.0 litre diesel engines used in vehicles with emissions “cheat” software may have contributed to the deaths of at least 60 people in the United States, and may cause dozens of additional deaths if it is not repaired soon.
Last month, it was discovered that millions of Volkswagen and Audi “Clean Diesel” vehicles sold in recent years had a software program installed, known as a “defeat device”, which was designed to detect when the vehicle was undergoing emissions testing and artificially lower emissions. However, at all other times, the vehicles release a dangerously high amount of chemicals and pollutants into the environment.
In a study published this week in the medical journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that the impacted vehicles were emitting 10 to 40 times more nitrous oxide than allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Volkswagen TDI diesel pollution problems may have contributed to the premature deaths of an estimated 59 people in the U.S., according to the findings, and could kill as many as 130 more if not corrected by the end of 2016.
The EPA issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act against Volkswagen and Audi on September 18, and forced the German auto maker to recall nearly 500,000 vehicles sold in the United States. The same defeat software was installed on an estimated 8 to 11 million vehicles sold worldwide.
Volkswagen promoted the vehicles as “clean diesel” hybrids, which were promoted as being better for the environment and which got better gas mileage. However, the statements appear to be part of a major fraud on consumers who were trying to be more environmentally friendly, and could have devastating long-term consequences on the overall health of Americans.
Researchers looked at vehicle sales data, estimated vehicle distance traveled per year, where the vehicles were bought and emissions distribution data to determine exposure estimation and mortality. The study estimates that from 2008 to 2015, the excess Volkswagen diesel nitrous oxide pollution resulted in 59 premature deaths.
While the EPA’s primary concern so far has focused on the levels of nitrous oxide emitted by the vehicles, researchers indicate that is not what contributed to the deaths. Instead, 87% of those premature deaths would have been due to increased particulate matter exposure, and 13% due to the additional ozone emitted by the recalled vehicles.
Researchers warn that those are estimates of effect on the population, and it cannot be determined who, specifically, may have died due to the Volkswagen diesel engine pollution.
The financial costs associated with health effects and other factors caused by the excess pollution from the Volkswagen TDI diesel vehicles likely cost the U.S. economy $450 million, according to the researchers.
The EPA has said that Volkswagen could face as much as $18 billion in fines for violating Clean Air Act emissions testing laws. In addition, a growing number of Volkswagen emissions scandal lawsuits have been filed seeking compensation for vehicle owners who paid a premium for the “Clean Diesel” cars and now face substantial drops in resale value. Many vehicle owners also allege that Volkswagen should be forced to buyback the vehicles outright, would cost the automaker billions more.
As the lawsuits continues to mount, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will hear oral arguments on December 3 about whether to centralize the claims before one federal judge for coordinated pretrial proceedings, as part of an MDL or multidistrict litigation.
In the meantime, U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen has assigned retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to oversee preliminary settlement talks between Volkswagen and attorneys representing recalled vehicle owners. Before he retired, Judge Rhodes handled Detroit bankruptcy litigation.