Some 60 people may die prematurely in the USA as a result of Volkswagen's diesel cars emitting more harmful nitrogen oxides than officially claimed, according to researchers.
MIT researchers in cooperation with a Harvard University team assessed the impact of 'VWGate' on public health in the US by multiplying the excess pollution by the number of affected vehicles and comparing the data with existing health risk factors and population data.
They concluded that up to 60 people will have their lives shortened by 10 to 20 years as a result of the emission rigging. The scandal will cost the US healthcare and social system up to $450m, in case that the carmaker recalls and fixes all affected vehicles by the end of 2016.
If Volkswagen fails to remove the defeat device in that timeframe, a further 140 people would die as a result of the accumulated emissions in the future, the scientists estimate. In this case further $840m would be added to the total health and social care bill.
In September, the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed Volkswagen was using software, known as the defeat device, to detect when its diesel cars were being tested and initiate measures to reduce the amount of emissions produced. However, as the technology was known to have a negative effect on performance and fuel consumption, Volkswagen decided to keep it off during normal operations. As a result, real nitrogen oxide emissions of the affected cars were up to 40 times above the legal limits.
"It seemed to be an important issue in which we could bring to bear impartial information to help quantify the human implications of the Volkswagen emissions issue," said MIT researcher Steven Barrett, the lead author of the paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
"The main motivation is to inform the public and inform the developing regulatory situation.”
High concentrations of nitrogen oxides can harm the human respiratory tract and trigger the development of asthma, bronchitis and other conditions.
The researchers estimate that Volkswagen's excess emissions will contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions. They calculate that individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.
"We all have risk factors in our lives, and [excess emissions] is another small risk factor," Barrett explained. "If you take into account the additional risk due to the excess Volkswagen emissions, then roughly 60 people have died or will die early, and on average, a decade or more early."