The Volkswagen scandal now has a death toll forecast.
By the end of 2016, VW’s cars, rigged with “defeat devices” to cheat on emissions tests, will have pumped out enough excess toxic pollution to directly contribute to the premature deaths of around 60 people in the U.S. alone, MIT and Harvard University researchers determined in a new study published Monday in Environmental Research Letters .
In a scandal that already has its own Hollywood blockbuster in the works, Volkswagen rigged some 11 million cars around the world to pass government emissions tests while still emitting far more than the legal limit of the harmful pollutant NOx. The 482,000 diesel vehicles Volkswagen and Audi sold in the U.S. between 2008 and 2015 emitted as much as 40 times more NOx than permitted by the Clean Air Act. The researchers estimated that over the period from 2008 to 2015, those cars pumped out an extra 36.7 million kg of NOx emissions.
NOx pollution, an important component of both smog and fine particulate matter, is associated with early death, a host of respiratory diseases and heart disease, among a range of other health problems. All that extra NOx, then, is a real public health threat: The researchers found that when they extrapolated the health impact of the excess pollution over the U.S. population, it was enough to cause roughly 60 people to die 10 to 20 years prematurely. They note that some of those deaths have not happened yet, because it can take the conditions associated with air pollution a while to reach deadly severity.
What’s more, that level of excess pollution from 2008 to 2015 will “contribute directly” to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions for heart and respiratory conditions in the U.S., some of which have already occurred, and others which have yet to. It’ll also lead to 120,000 “minor restricted activity days,” like missing work or school, and roughly 210,000 days of lower-respiratory symptoms, such as coughing. They calculate that all those sick people, from 2008 through the end of 2015, will cost the country $450 million.
If Volkswagen issues a total recall of all its rigged cars in the U.S. in January 2016, and completes a gradual phase-out that takes them all off the road by December 2016, like it already says it will do in Europe, another 130 early American deaths will be avoided, the study found. However, if VW doesn't issue that recall and the rigged cars continue to be driven without modification, they’ll cause an additional 140 early deaths from 2015 onwards. Overall health costs caused by the cars, they estimate, would rise to $840 million.