Here’s Why VW’s Emission Scandal Didn’t Actually Kill Anybody

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A new peer-reviewed study claims elevated nitrogen oxide emissions from Volkswagen diesel cars killed 59 Americans and caused dozens more to be hospitalized and suffer asthma attacks over the last seven years.

Claiming VW diesel cars caused dozens of premature deaths is completely misleading. The claim relies on dubious science that doesn’t quite draw a straight line from health incidents to a company’s emissions. Predictably, it’s the same science the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leverages to justify stricter regulations.

Aside from the tenuous research conclusions, there are huge legal problems with trying to argue VW’s use of an emissions defeat device literally killed 59 people.

Why VW Emissions Didn’t Kill Anyone

“We estimate the public health impacts and associated costs of the alleged [Clean Air Act] violations by VW due to defeat devices being present in model year 2009–2015 light duty diesel vehicles with 2.0 litre engines,” reads the oft-cited study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Researchers claim fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, caused 87 percent of the 59 deaths, and ground-level ozone caused the other 13 percent. EPA says both of these pollutants cause premature death from exposure.

In fact, former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson told Congress in 2011 that reducing PM2.5 will “have the same impact as finding a cure for cancer.”

“Particulate matter causes premature death. It doesn’t make you sick. It’s directly causal to dying sooner than you should,” Jackson said.

The EPA says similar things about ozone, or smog. Ozone occurs when NOx mixes with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight and can be caused by human emissions or naturally, especially at high altitudes.

New EPA ozone regulations claim lowering ambient smog levels from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion will prevent 320 to 660 premature deaths every year by 2025.

Claims that PM2.5 and ozone kill people are based on controversial epidemiology studies desperately looking for statistical correlations between air pollution data and death rates. (Setting aside the fact that these conclusions would also implicate the chief executive and operators of Air Force One) toxicologists disagree with EPA that ozone, especially at such low levels, is killing people.

“There’s just a whole host of things that are wrong with that [conclusion],” Michael Honeycutt, the lead toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in August. “We have no documentation of anyone being killed by ozone.”

“Really, nobody thinks this stuff is lethal at low levels,” Honeycutt said. “At high levels it’s a different story. It’s hard to even fathom how these low levels can kill people.”

“In Denver, ozone doesn’t kill you, but in Colorado Springs it does kill you. They are about 70 miles apart and Denver has about 10 percent more ozone than in Colorado Springs,” Honeycutt said, referring to an example of how epidemiological studies give mixed results.

“Most studies show no association between ozone and mortality in Southern California, the area of the country with the highest ozone concentrations,” Honeycutt added. “Lincoln, Nebraska has the correlation between ozone and deaths.”

The problems with EPA science goes even further. For years, the agency has funded experiments testing ozone and PM2.5 on human subjects, including the elderly, asthmatics and even children.

EPA, however, did not disclose to human test subjects that PM2.5 and ozone could cause premature death, despite publicly linking those air pollutants to death. In some of these human studies, EPA researchers exposed people to levels of PM (from diesel exhaust) and ozone 40 times higher than the agency sets for outdoor air standards.

A 2014 EPA inspector general’s report found “only one of five studies’ consent forms provided the subject with information on the upper range of the pollutant” they would be exposed to, and only “two of five alerted study subjects to the risk of death for older individuals with cardiovascular disease.”

“Further, the EPA did not include information on long-term cancer risks in its diesel exhaust studies’ consent forms,” the IG’s report noted. “An EPA manager considered these long-term risks minimal for short-term study exposures” but “human subjects were not informed of this risk in the consent form.”

What’s notable is that even being exposed to elevated PM and ozone levels, no test subject was killed — though some suffered minor, yet reversible, health effects.

These details have EPA caught in a bind; not only is it failing to tell test subjects it believes PM and ozone are deadly, none of their studies have resulted in any death — despite exposing people to high levels of pollutants.

Blaming VW For Deaths Is Legally Problematic

Even if EPA and others could claim with certainty that VW emissions killed 59 Americans it would still have a problem: Where are the bodies?

It will be quite a feat to take VW to court over pollution deaths without being able to identify actual people who have been killed by diesel emissions. You can’t prosecute someone for manslaughter if there are no identifiable victims.

“The reason all the alleged victims of VW diesel emissions are unidentified is because they are all statistical deaths — i.e., deaths that only occur in the minds and studies of dishonest researchers,” Steve Milloy, an expert who has spent decades debunking junk science claims, wrote in Breitbart News.

But even if you could find victims of air pollution, how do you prove they were killed by emissions directly from VW diesel cars equipped with a defeat device?

VW broke the law. No one in the U.S. is above the law, but trying to prove VW diesel vehicles killed nearly 60 people is virtually impossible because of the science EPA and researchers use to base their claims.

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