What the Volkswagen scandal means for our health

By now, the depth of Volkswagen’s deception is clear: The German automaker deliberately misled American regulators by installing software on 11 million vehicles that reduced emissions during testing, but allowed the emissions to increase by 4,000 percent once they got out into the real world where people live and breathe.

What may not have been as clear is what kind of impact the rigged cars had on human health over the past seven years. Obviously it’s not good, but just how bad could it be? The answer is bad. Very, very bad.

Even if you assume that vehicle manufacturers are meeting the guidelines set out by regulators, MIT estimates vehicles emissions are responsible for 58,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. To put that in perspective, car accidents account for approximately 35,000 deaths each year, meaning the toxic chemicals spewing from our cars and trucks are killing more people each year than the cars and trucks themselves. But again, that 58,000 number assumes that manufacturers are playing by the rules, and we’re aware that at least one — and potentially others — are most definitely not. So for all we know, vehicle emissions could be responsible for far more deaths than previously estimated.

Since vehicle emissions are already bad for human health, it makes sense that they would be especially harmful to the most vulnerable — the very young and the very old. According to a study from UCLA, vehicle emissions can cause a host of respiratory problems in children, from chronic coughing and bronchitis to wheezing and asthma attacks, to even infant mortality. Yet most concerning is the effect of vehicle emissions — and diesel emissions in particular — on unborn children.

Multiple studies from universities and health institutes across the country have found links between vehicles emissions and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A study conducted jointly by USC, UC Davis, and Sonoma Technology Inc., found significantly increased rates of autism in children living near freeways. A separate study from USC observed that exposure to vehicle emissions during pregnancy and the first year of life was associated with an elevated risk of developing autism. A study conducted at Harvard University discovered that increased maternal exposure to vehicle emissions, especially during the third trimester, corresponded with a greater chance of ASD in children. Perhaps most disturbing, though, are the findings from a different Harvard study in which babies exposed to diesel pollutants during the perinatal period — right before and right after birth — were twice as likely to be diagnosed with autism.

The level of betrayal and deceit exhibited by Volkswagen is staggering. They knowingly sold millions of cars that spew 40 times the legal levels of toxic chemicals to the public, promoting them to the public as green cars; as family cars. Hell, the Volkswagen Golf even won compact car of the year for families, something I imagine wouldn’t have happened if the public knew what effects these emissions would have on their kids. I can only imagine the frustration and rage the families like the Bishops, who bought a 2011 Volkswagen Jetta diesel TDI right  after the birth of their son, must feel.

The fact that Volkswagen is facing at least 34 class-action lawsuits and up to $18 billion in fines from the U.S. government will likely be little compensation to families whose children and loved ones were harmed, but at least it’s a start. Moving forward, though, one has to wonder what can be done to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

The obvious answer is more stringent testing and regulation of vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel, but what if we just started using a fuel that doesn’t produce as many harmful emissions? Going electric is an option, but high price tags can make that difficult for many families. Another path is flex-fuel vehicles, cars and trucks that can run on any blend of gasoline and up to 85 percent ethanol, emitting less harmful chemicals and generally costing less at the pump than diesel or conventional gasoline.

Regardless, it’s clear we need more transparency from automakers, and more (healthier) fuel choices. The lives of the weakest among us — the sick, the elderly, and our children — are literally at stake.

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  1. […] aspect of this ruling is that it will make tricks like the one Volkswagen pulled — that put the health and well-being of countless Americans at risk — much harder to get away with. The Volkswagen air pollution scandal might have been detected […]

  2. […] What the VW scandal means for our health […]

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