Dieselgate: Car emissions in excess responsible for thousands of premature deaths

18 September 2017
MobileReporter Rome

About 10,000 people die prematurely every year across Europe because of pollution from diesel cars associated to Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), a new international study shows. This story is part of an international investigation run by MobileReporter.

Half of these deaths are caused by emissions exceeding the EU limits. They are the direct consequence of the abuses in the environmental performance assessment for cars that came to public attention with the Volkswagen and the ensuing Dieselgate in 2015.

The research, covering the 28 Member States as well as Norway and Switzerland for the period 2010 to 2017, was conducted by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MetNorway), in cooperation with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Space, Earth & Environment Department at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

This collaborative work is the first successful attempt to quantify premature deaths in each European nation, comparing the different levels of danger that are threatening citizens as they cross the borders in the continent.

The top four countries, Italy, Germany, France and UK, have the highest death toll (70 percent) due to the high number of diesel cars and their large populations, equating to 50 percent of all Europeans.

The top ten also includes the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Hungary. The remaining 20 countries represent 23 percent of Europe’s population, but only 10 percent of the premature deaths. Particularly, in Norway, Finland and Cyprus the risks are at least 14 times lower than the European average.

“Had diesel cars met the EU emission limits, about 5,000 premature deaths could have been avoided”, says Jens Borken-Kleefeld, transportation expert at IIASA. “And even more lives, precisely 7,500 (80 percent of losses), could have been saved if diesel cars had emitted as little NOx as petrol cars.” Indeed, the EU set much stricter limits for petrol cars that, consequently, generate lower toxic emissions.

Excess diesel emissions are the result of loopholes in the EU environmental surveillance system. Car makers are required to prove to national control agencies that their vehicles meet binding limits, called "Euro" standards. Over the years, the EU has increasingly tightened these values (the lowest being the Euro 6) to make transportation progressively cleaner. However, this certification mechanism relied on outdated lab tests. The Volkswagen case pushed both governments and the industry to admit the truth: Real on-road emissions were found to be much higher than lab values, peaking by up to 400 percent higher than the Euro limits.

In the wake of the public outrage, the EU sped up the introduction of real driving tests designed to ensure a more realistic measure of cars emissions. This new procedure has just become mandatory for new car models (on September this year). But it will apply to all new cars only in two years time.

Transportation is the largest source of air pollution which is responsible for about 425,000 premature deaths in the EU, Norway and Switzerland, according to the European Environment Agency. More than 90 percent of these deaths are caused by respiratory and cardiovascular diseases associated with exposure to fine particulate matter (PM). A key factor in the formation of this harmful pollutant is the NOx gas.

“We managed to trace the population exposure to PM back to excess NOx emissions from diesel cars”, Jan Eiof Jonson from MetNorway.

The researchers used public data and a calculation methodology consisting of three main steps. First, they quantified the exposure to extra PM generated from cars’ NOx. Then, they estimated the risk of dying prematurely because of certain diseases related to PM. And, eventually, they correlated this risk of premature death with the exposure to PM.

“We intentionally focused on deaths linked to PM originated from NOx. If we were to consider the direct effects of NOx and those of all pollutants, then we would have recorded much higher fatalities”, says Jens Borken-Kleefeld.

A [previous study], co-authored by the International Council on Clean Transportation and published on the review Nature, calculated that 6,800 Europeans prematurely died in 2015 as a result of NOx emissions diesel cars’ exceeding the EU limits.

"Our approach is independent but similar to the research reported on Nature”, says Jens Borken-Kleefeld. “Our number of premature deaths is somewhat lower, as I said 5,500. But it ss absolutely in the range of acceptable uncertainty that, according to our calculations, spans between from 6,000 and 13,000. Hence, we confirmed substantially the results of the Nature study. The gap is due to differences in the health impact assessment methodologies. And I believe our results are good as we account for the variation between European countries much better. The Nature study, instead, came up with a total figure for all countries considered as a block, with no indication of their national breakdown.”

This article is part of an international investigation on Dieselgate run by MobileReporter in partnership with the European Data Journalism Network.

This article is published in association with The European Data Journalism Network.

It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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