El asunto Volkswagen: ¿qué repercusión podría tener en la salud?

What Are the Public Health Implications of the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal?

This week the world discovered that cars manufactured by Volkswagen (VW) and Audi have been violating emissions standards. In the USA, emissions are regulated by the Clean Air Act, a federal law designed to protect human health from the effects of airborne pollution coming from a wide variety of sources.

What happened?

VW and Audi have been violating the US Clean Air Act since 2009 by manufacturing and selling four-cylinder diesel vehicles equipped with a sophisticated software device designed to evade the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air standards.

What pollutants are involved?

The main pollutants involved are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particles. Diesel-powered vehicles generally produce NOx levels 4 times higher and particle levels up to 20 times higher than those of cars running on petrol. The so-called ‘defeat device’ fitted in VW and Audi cars affects the way the NOx control system operates, allowing the rigged vehicles to release up to 40 times the levels permitted by US federal standards.  

What are NOx and why are they regulated?

The generic term nitrogen oxide or NOx is commonly used to refer to the sum of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NOx emissions are regulated because of their association with many negative health effects.

In the short term, NOx can cause airway irritation resulting in respiratory symptoms. In susceptible patients, such as people with asthma, they can lead to an increase in emergency room visits due to the exacerbation of asthma attacks.

In the long term, NOx are also linked to chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. There is also sufficient scientific evidence to support the association between NOx and increased mortality in the population.

Can NOx interact with other pollutants to cause other diseases?

NOx react with ammonia, moisture and other compounds to form small particles. These small particles penetrate deeply into sensitive areas of the lungs, causing or exacerbating respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. NOx emissions can also aggravate existing heart conditions and lead to an increase in hospital admissions and premature death.

Furthermore, ozone is formed when NOx and volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight. Ozone provokes adverse effects in people who work or exercise outdoors, older people, children, and people with lung conditions such as asthma. The risks include reduced lung function and an increase in respiratory symptoms and in emergency room visits due to these symptoms; the outcome is an increase in hospital admissions and, in some cases, premature death.

What are the implications for public health of this emissions violation?

Because of the wide range of negative health effects associated with NOx, and in view of their relationship with other pollutants (particulate matter and ozone), these emissions have a significant impact on public health.

Through this violation of US standards, VW and Audi have made it possible for their vehicles to produce NOx emissions up to 40 times the legal limit for the past seven years. The effect of these higher levels of airborne pollution could well be an increase in the incidence and prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease and of premature death. Consequently, this fraud should not only be seen as an infringement of air-quality legislation, but also as a public health violation that has caused irreparable damage.

The problem here in Spain may be much greater because diesel vehicles represent a much higher proportion of the total stock of cars on the road despite the fact that they are considered by many experts to represent one of the biggest environmental risks to public health in the developed world.  

What can be done?

The first thing we should do is ask ourselves some questions. After all, we are the car buyers. Do we really need more and more cars? And why should we buy cars from corporations that do not respect our health?

The first priority should be to stop the manufacture and sale of these rigged vehicles. At the same time, all the affected vehicles sold between 2009 and 2015 must be recalled for repair, and the competent authorities outside the USA must thoroughly check the emissions of both these models and other models and brands. At the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), an allied ISGlobal research centre, we are working on a number of projects aimed at generating scientific evidence to support the use of sustainable modes of transport. And, obviously, diesel cars  are not a sustainable mode of transport. What has happened in VW-Audi should provide us with an opportunity to consider the elimination of all diesel vehicles because of the health risks they pose.

What this scandal has shown us is that company self-regulation does not work in the automotive industry. And we have learned that, in the USA at least, government regulation has also failed. And that governments—and all of us—need to improve vehicle emissions checks and controls.

Undoubtedly, it has also shown that we still need to demand ethical standards and a more responsible attitude to health and the environment from both corporations and government authorities. 

[This article has been jointly written by Jordi Sunyer and David Rojas-Rueda. Jordi Sunyer is a researcher and joint scientific director at CREAL, an allied ISGlobal centre. David Rojas-Rueda, a researcher at both CREAL and ISGlobal, will be one of the speakers at the 4th International City Health Conference to be held in the CosmoCaixa in Barcelona on 5 and 6 November.]