Volkswagen 'Dieselgate' scandal blamed for 5,000 premature deaths across Europe

Diesel emissions have been linked to thousands of deaths a year in Europe.iStock

Around 10,000 deaths in Europe every year are caused by small particle pollution from light duty diesel vehicles (LDDVs), a new study has found. In addition, 5,000 of those deaths can be attributed to diesel cars that have been rigged to appear more environmentally friendly.

In 2015, following the so-called 'Dieselgate' scandal, German carmaker Volkswagen admitted to cheating on vehicle emissions tests, tricking regulators into thinking their cars gave off less pollutants than they actually did. Since then, other car manufacturers have also been fingered for similar wrongdoing.

New research, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that thousands of premature deaths could have been avoided if the levels of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted from these cars matched the levels confirmed in lab tests.

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Volkswagen was caught installing illegal software into its vehicles that could tell when a car was undergoing test conditions, allowing it to temporarily reduce its emissions.

"If diesel car emissions were as low as petrol car emissions, three quarters or about 7,500 premature deaths could have been avoided", said Jens Borken-Kleefeld, transportation expert at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Italy, Germany and France are the countries with the highest number of deaths linked to diesel pollutants. This is due to both their large populations and also their high share of diesel vehicles. The UK is just behind, with the fourth most deaths.

Diesel vehicles have long been promoted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to petrol cars because they release less carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. They now make up around half of all cars in Europe, which amounts to about 100 million vehicles.

However, they emit far more NOx, which has been linked to several negative health consequences under long-term exposure, including reduced lung function, headaches, breathing problems, eye irritation, loss of appetite and corroded teeth. Furthermore, NOx in the atmosphere contributes to acid rain and harmful smog.

40% of all NOx emissions in the EU, Switzerland and Norway can be attributed to road transport, the researchers said.

It estimated that air pollution of all types is linked to more than 450,000 premature deaths in Europe annually.

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