If corporations could be jailed for murder, then Volkswagen would be looking at several life sentences right now.
Researchers from MIT and Harvard estimate that VW’s cheat software, which fooled testing equipment into thinking the cars’ pollution-spewing engines were in fact clean, will be responsible for killing 59 people.
Their study, published in Environmental Research Letters, details the effects of the excess pollutants from Volkswagen’s diesel engines from 2008 to 2015. During these seven years, the engines belched around 82 million pounds of nitrous oxide (NOx) into the air. For reference, that’s about 1% of the total for all light-duty vehicle emissions in 2015. The cars involved emit pollution at between 10 to 40 times the EPA’s maximum permitted levels. The researchers compute that around 59 early deaths will eventually be caused by this extra pollution, which causes asthma and a host of other respiratory problems.
Clearly, nobody will be jailed for these deaths—how would we even know who had died, and when? There won’t actually be 59 named individuals on VW’s corporate conscience. But the study’s authors picked an excellent way to frame its results. The extra pollutants are abstract to most of us, and we’re so habituated to both pollution and to corporate irresponsibility that we don’t even register them anymore. By converting the numbers into individual deaths, the MIT and Harvard researchers give us something to get angry about.
And we should be angry, because real individual humans at VW decided to design software that would let its cars dump dangerous levels of poison into the air. And not abstract air, either, but the actual air in your street. You breathed in the exact same NOx mentioned in this study when you went out walking or jogging. Your kids breathed it in as they played in their schoolyard.
Study author Steven Barrett tells MIT News that the VW death count is “about the same order of magnitude” as deaths caused by road transport accidents.
“If nothing’s done, these excess emissions will cause around another 140 deaths,” he said. “However, two-thirds of the total deaths could be avoided if the recalls could be done quickly, in the course of the next year.”
Right now, most of those cars are still out there–and the owners have no legal obligation to fix them–causing as much damage as they did before Volkswagen got caught.