An auto industry-funded German research institute is in hot water for exposing about 25 young people to air pollution as part of a study into the effects of diesel exhaust on humans.
The German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung reported “around 25 healthy young people inhaled nitrogen dioxide in varying doses over a period of hours at an institute belonging to Aachen University in Germany,” according to Reuters.
Those experiments were conducted by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, which was funded by automakers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. The research group was dissolved last year.
Automakers came out to condemn the research, which exposed about two dozen individuals to a component of diesel exhaust the World Health Organization says is carcinogenic. The European Research Group also came under fire for exposing monkeys to nitrogen dioxide, The New York Times reported. The news comes after Volkswagen got caught installing software into diesel cars to fool government emissions testing equipment.
The group’s human testing mirrors past studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency involving human subjects.
In 2014, the EPA Office of Inspector General released a report on five agency experiments conducted in 2010 and 2011 that exposed people, including those with asthma and heart problems, to fine particulate matter, diesel fumes and ozone at levels far above what officials considered safe.
A government watchdog group also found EPA funded studies that exposed children to diesel exhaust between 2003 and 2010, conducted at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
EPA says all three of those pollutants are hazardous to human health, including premature death. Despite this, the agency “exposure risks were not always consistently represented,” the inspector general found in 2014.
“Further, the EPA did not include information on long-term cancer risks in its diesel exhaust studies’ consent forms,” the 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.”
“[O]nly 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.”
EPA funded the experiments to support their regulatory agenda to clamp down on certain types of air pollutants, especially particulates and ozone. While no permanent or long-term damages were reported in the studies examined by the inspector general’s office, some study human test subjects did experience some health problems.
No one died in the studies, but one test subject — a 58-year-old obese woman with medical problems and a family history of heart disease — was ordered to go to the hospital after being exposed to “ambient air pollution particles” in October 2010.
Another subject developed a persistent cough after being exposed to ozone for 15 minutes in April 2011, and two other subjects suffered from “cardiac arrhythmias” during testing in 2010 after being exposed to “clean air.”
EPA defended its human experiments, and three years later a National Academies of Science panel found that “EPA’s procedures are consistent with and indicative of ethical approaches to human-subjects research.”
Likewise, European researchers found nitrogen dioxide emissions had no effect on about two dozen young, healthy test subjects. University of Aachen defended the studies, saying they were approved by independent ethics boards.
However, European politicians were quick to condemn the research into humans.
“The words ‘absurd and abhorrent’ of course apply more than ever if the same is applied to humans,” said Lower Saxony’s Prime Minister Stephan Weil. “It must now be established whether that is the case, under whose orders and when.”
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