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Diesel emissions above legal limits contribute to premature deaths

Cars spewed more nitrous oxide than regulations permit, which was linked to 38,000 early deaths.
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grinvalds via Getty Images

Diesel vehicles in almost a dozen countries emit 50 percent more nitrogen oxide than lab tests anticipate, according to a new study. The disparity between estimated and actual levels isn't just dumping more pollution in our atmosphere: It's believed to have contributed to about 38,000 premature deaths in 2015.

Researchers checked emissions from the tailpipes of diesel vehicles in eleven regions: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and the US. Labs estimated that cars, trucks and other emitters belched 9.4 million tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), but researchers found them to have spewed 5 million more tons than expected.

This isn't a revelation: Last year, a comprehensive study found that 97 percent of all modern diesel cars emit more NOx than the legal limit. The study published yesterday in the journal Nature finally put a body count on those excess vehicle emissions at about 38,000 premature deaths across the globe back in 2015. Which is why, when car companies are caught tweaking their emissions numbers, they get crucified in the media: Continual court settlements and bad publicity have at least pressured Volkswagon to fix their polluting diesel vehicles and promote new electric models.

Only 1,100 of those facilitated fatalities were in the US, with most coming out of China, India and the European Union. That shouldn't be surprising either, as several reports have found that the EU's lower regulations for diesel cars compared to larger-hauling trucks has allowed consumer vehicles to spew more NOx than comparable machines in other countries. They're even disproportionate within the EU, as Italy had far and away the most premature deaths linked to NOx pollution at over 20,000 per year in 2013 (including gas emitted from industrial, non-vehicle sources), according to the European Environment Agency.

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