About 10000 people die prematurely every year across Europe because of pollution from diesel cars associated to Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), a new study shows.

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Half of these deaths are caused by emissions exceeding the EU limits. They are the direct consequence of the abuses in the environmental performance assessment for cars that came to public attention with the Volkswagen and the ensuing Dieselgate in 2015.

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The research, covering the 28 Member States as well as Norway and Switzerland for the period 2010 to 2017, was conducted by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MetNorway), in cooperation with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Space, Earth & Environment Department at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

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This collaborative work is the first successful attempt to quantify premature deaths in each European nation, comparing the different levels of danger that threat citizens as they cross the borders around continent.

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The top four countries, Italy, Germany, France and UK, have the highest death toll (70%) due to the high number of diesel cars and their large populations, equating to 50 % of all Europeans.

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The top ten also includes the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Hungary. The remaining 20 countries represent 23% of Europe’s population, but only 10% of the premature deaths. Particularly, in Norway, Finland and Cyprus the risks are at least 14 times lower than the European average.

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“And even more lives, precisely 7,500 (80% of losses), could have been saved if diesel cars had emitted as little NOx as petrol cars.” Indeed, the EU set much stricter limits for petrol cars that, consequently, generate lower toxic emissions.

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Excess diesel emissions are the result of loopholes in the EU environmental surveillance system. Car makers are required to prove to national control agencies that their vehicles meet binding limits, called “Euro” standards. Over the years, the EU has increasingly tightened these values (the lowest being the Euro 6) to make transportation progressively cleaner. However, this certification mechanism relied on outdated lab tests. The Volkswagen case pushed both governments and the industry to admit the truth: Real on-road emissions were found to be much higher than lab values, peaking by up to 400% higher than the Euro limits.

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In the wake of the public outrage, the EU sped up the introduction of real driving tests designed to ensure a more accurate measure of cars emissions. This new procedure has just become mandatory for new car models (on September this year). But it will apply to all new cars only in two years time.

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More than 90% of these deaths are caused by respiratory and cardiovascular diseases associated with exposure to fine particulate matter (PM). A key factor in the formation of this harmful pollutant is the gas NOx.

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“We managed to trace the population exposure to PM back to excess NOx emissions from diesel cars”, Jan Eiof Jonson from MetNorway.

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The researchers used public data and a calculation methodology consisting of three main steps. First, they quantified the exposure to extra PM generated from cars’ NOx. Then, they estimated the risk of dying prematurely because of certain diseases related to PM. And, eventually, they correlated this risk of premature death with the exposure to PM.

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“We intentionally focused on deaths linked to PM originated from NOx. If we were to consider the direct effects of NOx and those of all pollutants, then we would have recorded much higher fatalities.”, says Jens Borken-Kleefeld.

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A previous study, co-authored by the International Council on Clean Transportation and published on the review Nature, calculated that 6,800 Europeans prematurely died in 2015 as a result of NOx emissions diesel cars’ exceeding the EU limits.

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“Our approach is independent but similar to the research reported on Nature”, says Jens Borken-Kleefeld. “Our number of premature deaths is somewhat lower, as I said 5,500. But it is absolutely in the range of acceptable uncertainty that, according to our calculations, spans between from 6000 and 13000. Hence, we confirmed substantially the results of the Nature study. The gap is due to differences in the health impact assessment methodologies. And I believe our results are good as we account for the variation between European countries much better. The Nature study, instead, came up with a total figure for all countries considered as a block, with no indication of their national breakdown.”

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