The cost of fraud: health consequences of fraudulent emissions tests

INTERVIEW | At the end of 2015, it became known that Volkswagen Group has been cheating with emission tests for diesel engines over the last six years, resulting in on-road emissions vastly exceeding the legal standards for nitrogen oxides in Europe and the United States. PRé’s Laura Golsteijn interviewed Rik Oldenkamp, one of the researchers who quantified the public health consequences of this fraud.

Rik Oldenkamp and his fellow researchers from the Radboud University in Nijmegen were triggered by the Volkswagen fraud to ‘put the metrics behind sustainability’ and quantify the public health consequences. The conclusions were frightening: the fraudulent emissions are associated with 45,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). In monetary terms, that is a value of life lost of at least 39 billion US dollars. This is approximately 5.3 times larger than the 7.3 billion US dollars that Volkswagen Group has set aside to cover worldwide costs related to the diesel emissions scandal. To hear the researchers’ personal take, we talked to Rik Oldenkamp about his motivation, the experience and about any possible follow-up.

Interview with Rik Oldenkamp

You spent a lot of your own time on quantifying the human health impacts of the Volkswagen fraud. What triggered you to start? And what made you choose this approach?

The initial motivation to calculate the human health impacts of the Volkswagen fraud was basically curiosity. I realized it was possible to assess the health consequences of the fraud with the available methods and tools, so naturally I wondered: how big are these consequences? Initial “back of the envelope” estimations provided enough reason to do an extended analysis, linking cumulative excess emissions over time to their related health impacts in terms of DALYs. This way, we were able to study different scenarios, assessing for example the health effects that might be prevented if all fraudulent cars would be recalled.

What was your feeling when you found out the extent of the health impacts?

The results of the analysis were quite staggering, especially for Europe. Then again, so was the number of fraudulent cars sold (8-9 million cars) and the extent that they exceeded the legal limit for NOx (5-11 times). Since our results for the US turned out to be in line with results from other studies, that assured me that our results for Europe were sound.

What made you decide to publish the results from your impact assessment in the way you did? And how did that feel?

The potential public health consequences of the fraud were getting very little attention. While legal standards for nitrogen oxides are based on their effects on human health, the main outcry in society and the media was directed towards consumer deceit, legal issues, et cetera. We felt the fact that the fraud by VW has actually caused damage to human lives was a message worth telling. After we had calculated the 45k DALYs we realized that the message might be stronger if we expressed the human health impact not only as DALYs but also in value of statistical life lost (VSL), a cost-benefit analysis method in which human life is expressed in monetary value. Based on a recent review, we used a value of 7.6 million dollars per human life, which is lower than the VSL of 8.1 million dollars recommended by the US EPA.

Did you feel independent and free to publish your findings, or did you feel any hesitation or experience any pushback? If so, what kinds?

I did feel independent and free to publish our findings. When you are confident about your study results, you should not feel hesitant to publish them. We did discuss the potential attention and coverage our study might receive once published, considering the societal relevance and the severe conclusions for public health, and I think we prepared quite well for that. 

If we look at other scandals, we could conclude that the academic world can play a crucial role as a whistleblower. Do you agree? Do you feel this as a responsibility?

It is indeed a role that the academic world can play. Calling it a responsibility may be going a bit far, though.

Your scientific article was picked up by many Dutch newspapers. How did this happen? Did you promote your article in any way?

Radboud University issued a press release, which was picked up by some major news agencies (e.g ANP) and subsequently found its way to news sites and newspapers.

What did you think about the popular explanation by non-scientific news channels, like Algemeen Dagblad, Trouw and Financieel Dagblad?

I suspect it is always difficult to keep nuance when scientific results are published in non-scientific media. I do think that the message was taken up relatively well, thanks to a clear press release.

What happened next? How did the academic world respond to your research?

Not very extensively. I was pleasantly surprised, however, with the societal responses and inquiries we received. Concerned people inquiring about their personal health risks, et cetera.

Did theindustry do anything? If so, what?

Not at all. We did not get any response from Volkswagen, for instance.

What’s next…?

This was a side project for me. My regular research focuses on down-the-drain chemicals and their fate and effect in the environment. We will not be doing direct follow-up work on this. However, considering that fraudulent activities with diesel tests seem to extend beyond Volkswagen, it might be interesting to look into that, should reliable data on excess emissions become available in the future.

Wait, maybe there is more…

As Rik said, his analyses are not based on the most pessimistic approach. Health costs would have been a factor 1.8 higher if they had used the upper estimate of the value of statistical life. Moreover, health damages could increase even further if the cars are not recalled, causing damage that is also calculated in the article. Should the fraudulent cars stay on the road over their full statistical lifetime, additional NOx emissions due to noncompliance with legal standards are expected to result in 119 thousand DALYs, and a cumulative value of life lost of 102 billion US dollars.

I personally think this is scary news, and I surely hope these cars do not stay on the road their entire lifetime. But I am also happy that the news is out. That people are now aware of the impact and severity of this fraud. I think this example again underpins the power of using real metrics to explain the severity of human health damage.

About Rik

Rik Oldenkamp works as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of environment and health at the Department for Environmental Sciences of the Radboud University in Nijmegen. He obtained his PhD at the same department, specializing in the human health effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment. He authored and co-authored multiple scientific publications on human health, environmental impact assessment and the associated uncertainty and variability.

Laura Golsteijn

Senior Consultant

I am eager to increase the environmental awareness of our society, and I believe that everyone can contribute to a more sustainable world, every day. At PRé we provide companies with both the knowledge and the tools to improve their products and services. I am excited to work for an organisation that is involved in developing sustainable initiatives.

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