Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Scandal, the human cost

Published: October 31, 2015

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



The Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Scandal, big enough now that its name gets capital letters, has been much written about in the last few weeks, including on the pages of Shop Insurance Canada. However, while much has been discussed about the financial ramifications for Volkswagen and indeed the legal punishment the company will undoubtedly face, little has been said about the consumer.

It is interesting that this enormous corporate scandal has erupted with very little insight into how it has affected consumers, individuals who ultimately are the basis for the success Volkswagen has had. For all the legal and financial fallout from the Diesel Emissions Scandal, there has been a human cost, and it is a very real one.

A team from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study in the  peer-reviewed Environmental Research Letters that showed 59 people died in the United States  because of the additional pollution caused by the 2.0-liter, turbo diesel four-cylinders embroiled in the scandal. While on the surface the link seems tenuous, the research shows that the engines pumped out enough added pollution to effect the rates for premature death.

The scandal erupted when it was found that Volkswagen included cheat devices in its engines that would fool regulators into thinking those cars pumped out less pollution than they actually do.

Arguably the most interesting fact about the study is that it shows the scandal had a very real human cost and that the rate of 59 people is actually quite high. Sure, there are 320 million people in the United States, but 59 deaths is a high rate against the amount of vehicles Volkswagen sold in the country that were found to be implicated in the scandal. That number was 482,000 vehicles sold, which means the premature death rate can be viewed as 59 from 482,000.

If that is taken as an average of 60 deaths for every 500,000 affected vehicles sold then it makes for worrying global figures. The German car manufacturer has recalled a massive 11 million vehicles, so at the study’s rate of 60 deaths per 500,000 it means 1,320 premature deaths may have been caused.

There is no course for legal ramifications for this data, but the Harvard team did say that if Volkswagen can sort out all of its vehicles by the end of next year then it could save 130 further premature deaths.