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An Alarming Number of People Have Died from Dirty Diesel Engines

Emissions Testing At DEKRA FacilityEmissions Testing At DEKRA Facility
The machine says...try not to breathe anywhere near this car.Sean Gallup Getty Images

More than 500,000 Europeans a year may be dying from conditions related to air pollution, the European Union’s environmental watchdog said in a new report Monday. The report is likely to further stoke the emissions controversy plaguing the continent’s automakers.

The findings, by the European Environment Agency, add further evidence to the real-world impact of excess emissions. It comes at a time when Volkswagen AG (VLKAY), largest automaker in Europe and the second largest in the world, is struggling to contain the fall-out from revelations that it lied about the emissions performance of over 11 million of its vehicles, some 8 million of which are on European roads.

There is no one figure in the EEA’s report that says how many deaths have been caused specifically by diesel emissions, still less by VW’s excess emissions specifically. However, it estimates that 432,000 people in 40 European countries died prematurely in 2012, due to concentrations of particulate matter in the atmosphere, while another 75,000 died from long-term exposure to nitrogen oxide and another 17,000 due to exposure to ground-level ozone. Over 90% of those deaths happened in the 28 countries of the E.U..

The non-governmental agency Transport & Environment (T&E) said that the EEA’s estimates are, if anything, conservative, given that its estimate of premature deaths for the U.K. in 2012, at 14,100, was 40% lower than the U.K.’s own estimate of 23,500.

Vehicle emissions contribute to human health problems through all three channels–particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxides. But T&E zeroed in on the number of deaths caused by the last of the three, given that the road transport sector–cars, trucks, buses and vans–still accounted for 40% of total E.U. emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx in 2013. The EEA noted that diesel-powered vehicles accounted for around 80% of total NOx emissions from vehicles.

Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at T&E, said “75,000 deaths from nitrogen dioxide in Europe, mainly from diesel vehicles, is a deplorable death toll.” But he told Fortune that the issue is “very much a generalized problem,” rather than just VW’s.

A recent study by T&E found that nine out of 10 newly-registered diesel vehicles don’t actually meet the new ‘Euro 6’ standard on emissions that came into force at the start of September. Among the 10% that do actually meet the standard, he noted, is VW’s Golf. (Not that VW gets off lightly: the worst-performing vehicle in T&E’s test was from VW’s Audi stable.)

The discrepancy is due to the fact that European legislation allows car manufacturers a high degree of influence in setting the test conditions, such as allowing tests to be conducted on cars specifically adapted to give better results. In VW’s case, this extended to installing “defeat devices”–software that allowed the engine to recognize when the vehicle was being lab-tested, switching into a lower-emission, lower-performance mode of operation. Under normal road conditions, however, the engine reverted to a higher-performance, higher-emission operating mode.

T&E’s Archer said the vehicles it tested under “real-world” conditions routinely put out between four and five times the maximum amount allowed under Euro 6 standards.