Estimating Damages And Deaths From The Volkwagen Emissions Scandal | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: January 15, 2016

Estimating Damages And Deaths From The Volkwagen Emissions Scandal

Air Pollution: VW’s attempts to beat emissions tests may have caused 46 excess expected deaths and $430 million in damages, according to a modeling study
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: Volkswagen, NOx, nitrogen oxides, PM2.5, ozone, vehicle emissions
This map shows the estimated dollar value of damages per ton of excess nitrogen oxides emitted from altered Volkswagen vehicles in the U.S. The damages range from $160/ton (light blue) to $82,677/ton (dark blue).
Credit: Environ. Sci. Technol.
Map, by county, of damages caused by Volkswagen’s excess NOx emissions from altered diesel vehicles.
This map shows the estimated dollar value of damages per ton of excess nitrogen oxides emitted from altered Volkswagen vehicles in the U.S. The damages range from $160/ton (light blue) to $82,677/ton (dark blue).
Credit: Environ. Sci. Technol.

Last year, the news broke that in the U.S. almost 600,000 Volkswagen diesel vehicles, model years 2009 to 2015, contain software that altered engine performance and lowered emissions of toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) during emissions tests but not during normal driving. U.S. regulators have now filed a federal lawsuit against the automaker alleging violations of the Clean Air Act. In the atmosphere, NOx produces particulate matter and ground-level ozone, which aggravate heart and lung disease. A new study calculates the societal impact of this extra NOx: 46 excess expected deaths and $430 million in excess damages (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b05190).

This work makes the consequences of VW’s actions more real and personal, says Ray Minjares, who works on health impact assessments for motor vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). He was not involved with the current study, though research supported by ICCT first revealed the excess emissions from VW vehicles.

Other automaker scandals, like General Motors’ defective ignition switch in 2014 and a Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall in 2000, caused accidents that led to deaths. In contrast, the impact of excess NOx emissions is invisible, as it’s impossible to identify specific people affected by the pollution, says Andrew Yates, an environmental economist at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

To calculate damages and deaths from the VW scandal, Yates and his colleagues first estimated where the altered cars were located in the U.S., how far they were driven, and how much NOx these cars emitted in excess of limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

To do this, the researchers contacted a market research firm to obtain the county-by-county locations of 447,549 altered cars registered in the U.S. through June 2015. Then, they used data from the Federal Highway Administration to determine how far, on average, a typical vehicle in each of the affected model years was driven in each state. Finally, they estimated the amount of excess NOx produced by the altered cars using emissions measurements gathered from two different VW vehicles under actual driving conditions by researchers at West Virginia University as part of the tests that uncovered the scandal.

The researchers combined this information to estimate the excess NOx emissions in each county and used a model to predict the impact of air pollution by county. The model describes pollution movement through the atmosphere, tracks how NOx changes into harmful ozone and particulates, and predicts the health consequences and monetary damages from that pollution. The damages—primarily from particulate matter—include deaths, illnesses related to air pollution, reduced agricultural yield, degradation of buildings, reduced visibility, and reduced recreation. The model assigns costs to each of these to determine the monetary damages from NOx emissions.

The researchers found that the largest damages did not correspond to the regions with the largest number of affected vehicle registrations. For example, Minneapolis has the largest damages, even though the area ranks 14th in number of registered affected cars. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, ranks 28th in terms of damages, but third for registrations. The researchers think this is because atmospheric ammonia is required for the NOx reaction that forms particulate matter, and agricultural areas, such as those near Minneapolis, tend to have higher levels of atmospheric ammonia.

A previous study predicted 59 excess premature deaths and $450 million in societal costs from the scandal (Environ. Res. Lett. 2015, DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/114005). Minjares is pleased that the estimates from the two studies are so similar, even though the studies used different air pollution models and data for vehicle activity and location. The similarity gives valuable robustness to the estimates, he says.

The two studies use also use an approach similar to the one that government regulators use to estimate benefits and costs of regulations, Minjares adds. “It’s a fairly well understood and trusted approach to estimating impacts.” That speaks to regulators and government officials seeking to understand the magnitude of the impacts from the scandal, he says.

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Dieter Hofmann (January 16, 2016 10:50 AM)
Did anyone check the NOx effluent on the trucks as basic generation of NOx, so therefore your map shows not the basic level. What's happen at coal fired power plants? Maybe later you can blame Volkswagen. The blame is on lies and not using existing clean techs for 100 to 200 US$ higher costs. Look at vessels and planes.
Herman Rutner (January 20, 2016 9:55 PM)
Note these are incremental damages over and above the damage from alternative sources like coal fired electricity generators, trucks, diesel generators, and other emission sources that probably constitute a far higher and overlooked baseline pollution. Why not include the enormous total emissions from all these domestic sources rather than focusing on the small increment from a foreign entity? Looks like a national strategy to weaken foreign competition from the growing VW market or even force it out of business at least in the USA. Objective accomplished in multi billion penalties spawning further huge legal settlements.
Darryl Peters (January 21, 2016 8:16 AM)
The gist of the reported studies is to put damage numbers to the federal lawsuit. And yes if this puts VW out of business in the US (and also in Europe) it is a strong message that corporate greed, lies, and cover ups at the expense of the people should not be tolerated.
Stephen Rosenblumn (January 21, 2016 3:44 PM)
I don't accept the point of the above comments. They appear to excuse criminal conduct by VW and the resulting damage as a competitive ploy by the US and its auto makers. It was clearly a naked attempt by VW to force its non complying diesels onto the market in spite of the fact that they did not meet pollution control requirements either in Europe or the US.
Paul C.Goodley (January 23, 2016 3:04 PM)
I am surprised at incompletness of this publication by C&EN. This is obviously a headline grapper and lacks comperhensive and inclusive accounting of sources of NOx. This study would get an D- as a rating if submitted as a valid study. Again, I am surprised to see it in the "news" of C&EN without a qualifier.
Robert Buntrock (January 24, 2016 2:45 PM)
I agree with the comments that baseline pollution values were not considered and that other sources, especially diesel truck and other diesel engines as well as power plant sources, were not considered. Drivers of diesel trucks are very likely to leave their engines idling will making deliveries for example.
James Douglas (January 24, 2016 4:34 PM)
What is happening to the company that willingly and knowingly allowed (fill in new number) of known fatalities, proved to be caused by a faulty ignition switch.
This faulty switch had a double whammy, you lost traction/brake control and then in any consequent collision the airbags, seat belt tensioning etc failed.
No one was imprisoned despite their decisions not to have a recall (perhaps hoping to never have a recall if they could get away with it) and they even knew the names of people who died because of this negligence.
The NSA definitely pass on to US companies any useful private information they have obtained by tapping the phones and internet communications and intranets of foreign companies. They even pricelessly corrupted the NIST and got them to approve a faulty encryption system. All USA routers have back doors and no doubt Chinese one's too. And the NSA were warning people of Chinese routers/switches and then Snowden revealed the hypocrisy.
For the US, business is war and war is business and they learned much from Goebels.
Andy (January 30, 2016 11:11 AM)
Recently the claims have raisen regarding this issue. Choosing the right lawyer or law firm is some times gruesome job.
Donald H Stedman (February 5, 2016 8:38 PM)
46 statistical excess deaths really MUST be accompanied, as should any other scientific result, with an error estimate. In the case of NOx emissions, NOx emissions cause lower ozone in downtown urban areas where most people are, but under some circumstances cause higher ozone downwind. 46 +/- 6 should, if justifiable, be regarded differently from 46 +/- 256. Sullivan in "Air Pollution Deposition..." 2015 makes it very clear that the down side cost of NOx emissions can be balanced by the up side effect of nitrogenous fertilization on increased crop yield. A significant factor not taken in to account in the referenced article.

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