World / Reporter's Journal

No matter the scale, air pollution calls for quick action

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-10-28 10:55

Scientists at MIT and Harvard have provided a sobering reminder that air pollution really does take a human toll.

They looked into Volkswagen's scandalous use of software to evade emissions standards in more than 482,000 diesel vehicles sold in the US and produced a study suggesting that the surreptitious cut corners will directly contribute to 60 premature deaths nationwide.

Last month the US Environmental Protection Agency discovered that Volkswagen had developed and installed "defeat devices", which were actually software, in light-duty diesel vehicles sold between 2008 and 2015. The program was engineered to sense when the vehicle was being put through an emissions test, and then and only then turn on the car's emissions-control system, which otherwise remained inactive during everyday use. The cheat allows the cars to hide 40 times more pollutants than allowed under the Clean Air Act.

"That amount of excess pollution, multiplied by the number of affected vehicles sold in the US and extrapolated over population distributions and health risk factors across the country, will have significant effects on public health," the study finds.

According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, excess emissions from Volkswagen's defeat devices will cause around 60 people in the US to die 10 to 20 years prematurely.

If the company recalls every affected vehicle by the end of next year, more than 130 more early deaths may be avoided. Were Volkswagen not to order a recall in the US, the excess emissions, compounding in the future, would cause 140 people to die prematurely.

The researchers further estimate that in addition to the increase in premature deaths, the Volkswagens' emissions "will contribute directly to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis and 34 hospital admissions involving respiratory and cardiac conditions."

The study also calculates that individuals will experience about 120,000 minor restricted activity days, including work absences, and about 210,000 lower-respiratory symptom days.

"In total, Volkswagen's excess emissions will generate $450 million in health expenses and other social costs," the study projects. "But a total vehicle recall by the end of 2016 may save up to $840 million in further health and social costs."

Steven Barrett, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said in a statement: "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. The main motivation is to inform the public and inform the developing regulatory situation."

"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."

Barrett says that, per kilometer driven, this number is about 20 percent of the number of deaths caused by road transport accidents.

"So it's about the same order of magnitude, just from these excess emissions," Barrett says. "If nothing's done, these excess emissions will cause around another 140 deaths. However, two-thirds of the total deaths could be avoided if the recalls could be done quickly, in the course of the next year."

No matter the scale, air pollution calls for quick action

The study follows on the heels of last month's study from physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, who calculated that air pollution was killing about 4,000 people in China a day, accounting for one in six deaths in the world's most populous country, The Associated Press reported.

That study, published in the journal PLOS One, blamed emissions from burning coal, both for electricity and heating in homes. Using real air monitoring figures for the first time and computer model projections, the study suggested that 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems caused by badly polluted air.

"It's a little hard to wrap your mind around the numbers," the study's lead author, Robert Rohde, told the AP.

Commenting on the study, Allen Robinson of Carnegie Mellon University said that parts of the US, such as Pittsburgh, used to have air quality almost as bad as parts of China but have managed to clean it up "through tough regulations combined with a large collapse of heavy industry."

The EPA estimated in 2010 that between 63,000 and 88,000 people died in the US from air pollution. Other estimates range up to 200,000.

In any event, whether it's cars or coal, quick action seems to hold the most promise.

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