Is Your Neighbor’s Volkswagen Slowly Killing You and the Bees?

Susanna Sisson's picture
Volkswagen and breathing health

Recent allegations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claim Volkswagen Group of America violated the Clean Air Act by evading emissions standards in almost half a million vehicles. Devices that would render computerized emissions tests essentially worthless and allow the cars to emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than are allowed were installed on vehicles from 2009-2015 with 2.0 diesel engines. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard analyzed the potential health effects for drivers of these vehicles with regard to early death and potential illness in humans. [1]


What they estimated is that a “timely recall” would save lives. Well, no kidding. However in my opinion there are too many factors even for statisticians to mathematically speculate on all possible scenarios with their statistical crystal ball. The point is Volkswagen got caught with their pants down. Now, let’s hope they get more than a spanking.

What you need to know if you own a Volkswagen or breathe

Gases in diesel exhaust include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur oxides, and hydrocarbons, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and all have potential health risks from exposure including carcinogenicity and early death.


Nitrogen oxides (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (N02), which were named in the allegation, are highly reactive gases which affect every system in the body. These substances, which are also found in cigarette smoke, are extremely toxic to humans and hazardous to the environment which prompted Congress to pass the Clean Air Act in 1970 to control their emissions. [2] Because these gases are reactive in air they are inhaled into the body but, they can also be absorbed through the skin which is the body’s largest organ. High concentrations of NO can cause serious burns internally and externally. Even low levels of NO can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, skin, and lungs and cause coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and nausea. NO lowers the body’s ability to carry oxygen (O2) in the blood. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, dizziness and a bluish tint to lips due to lower O2 levels. Bronchitis is common with exposure to NO and long term exposure could result in damage to lung tissue and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Children and adults with asthma and reactive airway disease are more susceptible to breathing these pollutants. Respiratory illnesses and reduced lung function are not the only serious health issues with exposure to NO which has been linked to lung [3] and other cancers. [4] [5] As NO is a free radical, it reacts readily with other molecules within biological systems including other free radicals, molecular oxygen, and heavy metals and can cause damage to DNA. Exposure to nitrogen oxide gases not only affects the respiratory but also the cardiovascular system in response to lower oxygen levels. Symptoms can range from fatigue to chest pain and even stroke. NO gases have also been found to contribute to neurological damage and demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis and other chronic demyelinating inflammatory diseases. [6] NO exposure can have teratogenic effects placing pregnant women and fetuses at risk.

The collaborative study by the MIT and Harvard statisticians estimates that about 60 people have died prematurely due to Volkswagen’s negligence. [1] They also estimate the cost of this fiasco will be about $450 million in health costs, and indirect costs such as lost work and wages, although this is probably a very conservative figure. The cost of recalls and fines and potential lawsuits will be substantial. And how can anyone put a price on a life or estimate how many more people will actually be affected or die?

Environmental effects – can anyone put a price tag on our ozone layer?

The ramifications of the Volkswagen cheat may have far-reaching effects not only for humans but for the environment and wildlife. Nitrogen oxides are reactive with air and form caustic acids that affect the ozone layer. Acid rain then affects both wildlife and water systems affecting fish and other aquatic wildlife. [7] These carcinogens are then in both ground water and soil so that our food system is affected. The news has at least one environmental activist fuming (pun intended) especially with concerns of how these diesel emissions are affecting the already precarious position of our bees. [12]
Unfortunately Volkswagen is probably not the only offender – they just got caught. Other car manufacturers including Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, Volvo, and Jeep were all tested in real-world conditions - and all were deficient in emission testing. [10] In fact, according to one study the gap between testing and real life emissions may be as high as 38%. [11]