The guilt we all share: The VW scandal is at the root of a huge health horror story in which we are all complicit
Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s Britain, the city streetscapes were still littered with the aftermath of the war.
Whole areas hadn't been rebuilt and on many a bombed-out site, second-hand motor dealers proliferated. Many of them resembled the spiv Private Walker in Dad's Army and you literally took your life in your hands in buying the very "clean motors" they prided themselves in.
A car you took for a test wouldn't have the same tyres on when you came to collect it the next day, sawdust would be in gearboxes and exhausts would be so badly patched that you wouldn't turn the corner for home before it blew.
The whole reputation of the car dealer suffered as a result and it only really began to recover in the last couple of decades when a greater professionalism and training took over.
Cars are usually our second-biggest purchase after our homes, but on the whole we are badly served in advice, standards and regulatory controls.
Governments and even whole pan-national organisations, like the EU, will too often kow-tow to the pressure from the multinational car manufacturers.
Decent warranties are only becoming standard now and the attitude of so many car firms when dealing with aggrieved customers is first denial and then grudging assistance.
Even the country's motoring journalists are not a vocal enough group for the consumer. The writers are riven by a split and sometimes a concern to be on the industry's side rather than the customer, for, after all, they are provided with new cars full of fuel each week to test, as well as the trips aboard, dinners and the like. I am proud to work with writers here who have the highest standards.
The spiv is back but now runs the corporate boardrooms, so I was not surprised by the revelations from the Volkswagen Group of mass tampering with the emissions testing. The company deserves total opprobrium, for this is not just trying to cheat taxation systems but the pollutants it was trying to hide are killing people by the thousand and possibly even the hundred of thousand every year. It possibly is on par with the thalidomide scandal.
During the 1970s, I was privileged to work with two of the finest environment reporters of the time who were ground-breaking then and now. In 1977, Geoffrey Lean and Roger Ratcliffe of the Yorkshire Post, a "national" paper based in Leeds, launched an investigation into the health impact of lead additives in petrol. It revealed that official figures had vastly underestimated the effect of traffic fumes, with people breathing in three times as much lead than previously thought. The campaign which followed was instrumental in changing both official policy and public attitudes.
Yet it was fought at every step of the way by the motor and fuel industry in the most obdurate way. I remember when American research proved that living near traffic was affecting the development of children's brains and the causal link to lead in petrol was confirmed, the British industry wouldn't accept the need to ban lead "as maybe English children are different to American".
By the time the United Nations announced in 2011 that it had been successful in phasing out leaded gasoline worldwide, it could proclaim that "ridding the world of leaded petrol, with the United Nations leading the effort in developing countries, has resulted in $2.4 trillion in annual benefits, 1.2 million fewer premature deaths, higher overall intelligence and 58 million fewer crimes."
Geoffrey Lean, now the Environment Editor with The Daily Telegraph, wrote a few years ago, following the death of Derek Bryce-Smith, an eccentric and obdurate retired professor at Reading University, who was one of the greatest public health heroes of them all. Lean said: "More than half-a-century ago, Bryce-Smith was the first to draw attention to the dangers of lead in petrol, sparking off the worldwide campaign to eliminate it. Ridiculed and marginalised for decades, he lived to see the toxic metal banned from fuel in almost every country. That puts him in the same rank as John Snow, the celebrated 19th-century physician, who identified London's contaminated drinking water as the cause of cholera."
In Britain at the moment, the same Geoffrey Lean was writing last week that it might have been the Americans who first caught Volkswagen fitting dodgy software to its cars, but it's actually our air in Europe which is much more liable to be seriously polluted by diesel car makers gaming their pollution-control tests.
In Europe, a far higher proportion of our vehicles run on the fuel than in the United States. And the EU tests that are supposed to keep emissions levels down are both unfit for purpose and open to exploitation by manufacturers. Not that the Volkswagen crisis - rapidly becoming the worst ever to hit the automotive industry - is anything other than breathtaking, and in more senses than one. It has caused some to forecast the "death of diesel".
And Lean writes: "Despite their attempts to downplay the crisis by suggesting that, unlike with mechanical motor defects, there are "no fatalities involved'", the excess pollution emitted by Volkswagen - who exceeded their permitted nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions 10 to fortyfold - has surely caused many people to draw their last breath.
"The pollutant is estimated to cause the deaths of some 23,500 people in Britain alone each year and much of it comes from diesel exhausts. Preliminary calculations suggest that the extra emissions by the 11 million vehicles that Volkswagen admits are affected could total up to 948,000 million tons worldwide, roughly the same as is pumped out by all Britain's power stations, vehicles, factories and farms combined."
The respected European group Transport and the Environment says that no fewer than nine out of 10 new diesel cars fail to meet emission standards - leading Greg Archer, its Clean Vehicles Manager, to call the present furore "just the tip of the iceberg".
Prof Martin Williams of King's College, London, calculates that emissions from all diesel cars cause some 5,800 premature deaths in Britain every year - adding that if they were all made to "emit at the legal limit" that toll would be cut at least in half. Diesel cars are also very much more polluting than petrol-driven ones, yet for two decades successive governments have given motorists incentives to buy them in a wrongheaded attempt to tackle climate change because they emit less carbon dioxide.
As a result, they have grown from just 7.4pc of the car fleet in 2004 to a third of it now - accounting for 75pc of new registrations - compared to just 0.6 per cent in the United States. The resulting pollution was supposed to be tackled by progressively lowering the amount of NOx that diesel vehicles could emit.
But though these limits did come down - and the technology was available to meet the tighter standards - Kings College scientists have said that actual emissions have remained much the same since the turn of the millennium, while those from petrol have been slashed by 96pc.
The World Health Organisation estimates that in Europe about 500,000 die prematurely as a result of air pollution every year.
By fudging their figures, Volkswagen and any other company that has been doing it can be accused of assisting mass murder. And we as journalists, governments, regulating authorities and those drivers who turned a blind eye to all those warnings should feel a bit complicit in it all.