Volkswagen's emissions scandal now has an estimated death toll.
The excess emissions that the company concealed will be responsible for about 59 early deaths in the U.S. alone, according to a sweeping new study. The implications for Europe are far worse.
The study, by researchers at MIT and Harvard, is the first peer-reviewed estimate of the health impacts of Volkswagen's faulty software code, designed to conceal harmful pollutants. If the cars are all recalled by the end of next year, another 130 deaths may be avoided, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
"It's far from clear how many people will actually turn in their cars," said Steven Barrett, a professor at MIT and lead author of the study. "That's a key challenge."
Volkswagen's deception allowed some 482,000 U.S. diesel cars to pass emissions tests even as they polluted as much as 40 times the legal limit. The study calculated excess nitrogen oxide emissions released by the dirty fleet and modeled the effects across the U.S. using data about population density, traffic, health risks, and weather patterns.
Where VW's Pollution Is Worst
Volkswagen is working on a fix that will satisfy U.S. regulators, spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan wrote in an e-mail. "We have no details on the timing or the details of what the remedies will be," she said. The company declined to comment on the estimates of deaths caused by its cheating device.
For the half-million cars affected in the U.S., about 60 people will die prematurely, on average more than 10 years before they otherwise would have, according to the study. Worldwide, the number of affected vehicles is far greater—11 million—with the greatest concentration in Europe. High population densities there could make the health consequences even worse.
By comparison, General Motors's infamous ignition-switch defect, also concealed from the public, has been linked to the deaths of at least 124 people. This week's study shows the Volkswagen scandal, already one of the biggest and costliest in automotive history, may also become one of the deadliest.