Sniffing diesel

Air pollution kills 6.1 million people each year. It accounts for nearly 12 percent of the global death toll in 2016. This data, provided by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, illustrates that polluted air is a growing problem of public health and bioethics. At the same time AIDS kills 1.2 million people, tuberculosis 1,1 and malaria 0,7 million. Ambient air is polluted by expanding cities, use of motor vehicles, proliferation of pesticides and toxic chemicals, coal-fired power plants, and the global dissemination of industrial production. India is one of the most air polluted countries in the world. In Delhi schools are regularly closed because of noxious air. Smog is reducing visibility so that United Airlines cancelled its flights to New Delhi in November last year. Breathing the air there is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Nonetheless, Indian environmental ministers deny that deaths are the results of air pollution. While there is numerous and substantial evidence linking air pollution to morbidity and mortality, this is the usual pattern of denial by politicians and policy-makers. It is stupid. As Philip Landrigan in a recent article in The Lancet (25 November 2016) argued: global elimination of air pollution is possible. It can be controlled and diseases prevented. But it requires courageous leadership. This is not exactly what epitomizes today’s politics.

Curiously, reports emerged some weeks ago that the German car industry has sponsored research into the effects of diesel fumes on monkeys and animals. The monkeys were used not for scientific aims or to protect human lives but primarily to show that diesel cars were not harmful. The tests, however, were compromised because Volkswagen had provided a car with manipulated emissions controls, like they did for millions of cars on the market. Experiments with human beings took place in Aachen. Volunteers were exposed to nitrogen dioxide. The research was approved by the ethics committee of the university. Some people argued that this type of research was not unusual, and that the outrage in Germany was not sincere. The question, however, is why the car industry is sponsoring research investigating how healthy people and animals respond to exposure to diesel fumes, while the harmful effects are already known for such a long time. First of all, it seems to serve only marketing purposes. At the same time, 11 million cars were manipulated so that it seems that emissions levels were low. Why undertaking the effort if you believe diesel fumes are not harmful? Efforts and resources could be better spent on developing clean cars. That would not only improve the health of individuals but also contribute to diminishing air pollution at a global scale.

Yesterday, the German court in Leipzig decided that diesel cars can be banned from the cities of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf. This is a landmark decision. In more than 70 German cities the European norms for air pollution with nitrogen dioxide are violated. Cities can now take action to clean the air. The German government has never taken any serious action. It is captured by the economic interests of the car industry. It actually lobbied to relax the European norms. ‘Diesel gate’ shows that citizens can take effective action when governments are negligent. This is an important lesson not only for Germany.

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