Diesel emissions kill. What is the auto industy going to do about it?


Air quality around the world is very poor. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 90 percent of the earth’s inhabitants suffer as a result. About three million people die from dirty outside air each year. The European Environment Agency estimates that some 430,000 Europeans die prematurely each year as a result as well. Traffic plays a major role, especially in cities. This is firstly due to deadly particle matter created by tire, brake and street abrasion. Traffic also kicks up a lot of dust. And lastly, internal combustion engines generate large quantities of fine particle matter.

Prof. Barbara Hoffmann (Privat)

Professor Barbara Hoffmann

“Many major studies, some of which included hundreds of thousands of participants, have shown that fine matter particles and diesel soot lead to health problems, including cardiovascular illnesses, such as heart attack and stroke, lung disease, diabetes, low birth weights among newborns and asthma in young children,” explains Dr. Barbara Hoffmann, who heads the department of environmental epidemiology at the University of Düsseldorf Hospital. “Furthermore, diesel soot contains carcinogens that can lead to lung cancer. These health threats are very well-documented, and one can generally state that every one microgram increase of fine matter in the air raises the number of certain illnesses,” Hoffmann told DW.

The WHO suggests a maximum of 20 micrograms of particles, designated PM10 in size, per cubic meter of air. According to Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA) that number is regularly exceeded at more than one quarter of all the agency’s measuring stations throughout the country. Nevertheless, the modern filtering techniques installed in most new cars have led to a vast improvement over levels recorded in the past.

The WHO, however, says that air in many cities around the world is much worse than in countries like Germany and the USA. Beyond old cars and trucks, much of that pollution is caused by coal-fired power plants, factories and open fires.     

Read more: Court to decide the future of diesel cars in Germany   

Infografik Luftverschmutzung Städte weltweit ENG

Automakers violate health protection requirements

Another health threat comes from nitric oxide (NOx). In Europe, much of that poisonous gas (40 percent) is set free by diesel motors, as well as about 20 percent each by power plants and industry. Nitric oxide causes two major problems. Firstly, more fine particle matter is created by its reaction with atmospheric air; and secondly, the gas directly attacks the respiratory system. “More than others, people with preexisting respiratory illnesses are the most greatly affected. Such acute stress to their system can cause serious damage to their health. Moreover, studies show that long-term exposure decreases life expectancy and increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease,” says Hoffmann.

The European Environment Agency estimates that 75,000 Europeans died prematurely as a result of nitrogen oxide poisoning in 2012 – among them: 22,000 in Italy, 14,000 in Great Britain and 10,000 in Germany.

In an attempt to protect the health of EU citizens, nitric oxide emissions limits have been established across Europe. Since 2010, that limit has been set at an annual maximum of 40 micrograms of NOx per cubic meter. Beyond that, all automobiles produced after January 2000 have been required to meet NOx emission reduction standards. Yet automakers have shamelessly flouted such emissions and health protection standards. Though automobiles were equipped with software designed to trick laboratory ratings tests, in normal driving conditions emissions far exceeded legal limits. The discovery of this systematic criminal behavior in September 2015 eventually led to the so-called “dieselgate” emissions scandal. According to the Federal Environment Agency the newest diesel cars (category Euro 6) on German streets are emitting an average of six times more NOx than is allowed by law, older cars (Euro 5) emit five and (Euro 4) three times as much as allowed.

Read more: Massive collusion amongst German automakers

 Infografik Mehr Stickoxide als erlaubt bei PKWs ENG

38,000 deaths caused by inadequate exhaust cleansing

The UBA says that average NOx limits were exceeded at some 57 percent of all air quality measuring stations installed near German streets last year. “In the cities, old diesel automobiles are clearly to blame. As a matter of public health it is simply unacceptable that municipalities have no tools at their disposal to allow them to ban soot producing diesel cars from entering their cities,” said UBA President Maria Krautzberger when presenting the data. “Ultimately we are talking about protecting the health of our citizens.”

The effects of worldwide emissions manipulations by the automobile industry are documented in a study recently published by the trade journal Nature. For the project, an international team, under the leadership of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) and Environmental Health Analytics, evaluated more than 30 studies on diesel emissions, air pollution and disease.

Researchers concluded that some 107,600 premature deaths were directly related to air pollution caused by nitric oxide emissions from diesel motors in the most automobile intensive regions of the world in 2015. Researchers estimate that roughly 38,000 people died as a result of automobiles exceeding legal emissions standards. 28,000 people died as a result of busses and trucks exceeding those limits and a further 10,000 as a result of cars doing the same.

Infografik Todesfälle durch Stickoxide aus Dieselautos ENG

Diesel emissions controls easily applied

Auto industry and environmental experts agree that emissions cleansing can be easily applied when it comes to diesel motors if effective catalytic converters are installed, and not programmed to cut out when in use in traffic. Emissions measurements conducted by the NGO German Environmental Aid (DUH) found that one Mercedes and one Audi car (both Euro 6) currently emit far less than regulatory limits.

A new study by ICCT also found that so-called selective catalytic reduction (SCR) functions so well on busses and large trucks (Euro 6), that these emit far less nitric oxide than most new diesel cars (Euro 6).

SCR catalytic converters use urea (German brand-name AdBlue) as an additive when filling up the car’s fuel tank. The technique is also used to cleanse emissions at large industrial facilities, such as waste incinerators.

Kinder im Straßenverkehr- Erstklässler üben den künftigen Schulweg (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

Citizen’s health risks have not played a role in the ‘dieselgate’ scandal

Clean cars and clean air save costs

Health, environment and consumer experts, as well as lawyers and a growing number of politicians, have increasingly begun to call for automakers to retrofit diesel vehicles at their own cost. They claim that by complying with legal emissions standards for cars and trucks, citizens’ rights to clean air and good health in European cities could be respected and indeed attained.

So far, the automobile industry has balked at the idea of footing the bill for what is in fact its own responsibility. The German government has neglected to apply sufficient pressure on domestic automobile manufacturers to this end as well.

According to emissions expert, Axel Friedrich, most cars could be sufficiently retrofitted for an average price of 1,500 euros ($1,750) per vehicle. With that, the vehicles would be in compliance with emissions standards. That would seem a small price to pay in light of the health and economic damage caused by such vehicles.    

In environmental epidemiologist Hoffmann’s view, the one thing that has been missing in the diesel debate has been any reference to the societal costs that dirty diesel emissions generate. She says many people have no idea of the effects of air pollution: “If you calculate just what premature deaths and additional illnesses really mean in terms of costs, then you quickly realize how relevant the topic is in societal terms and what an enormous financial burden it is. Then perhaps people would also see that investing in cleaner air is really worth it.”