Audi CEO's arrest highlights a 'silent killer' thought to be involved in 53,000 deaths annually in the US

Shutterstock/J DennisSmog in Los Angeles.
  • On Monday, German officials arrested Rupert Stadler, the CEO of Audi, in connection to the company’s use of illegal software to cheat carbon-emissions tests.
  • Research suggests that car pollution leads to tens of thousands of early deaths each year in the US. Air pollution from vehicles tends to be most prevalent in cities.
  • An MIT study suggests that more Americans die from car pollution than from car accidents.
  • Compared with cities abroad, few American cities are tackling the issue of air pollution from vehicles in a meaningful way.

German officials have arrested Rupert Stadler, the CEO of Volkswagen’s Audi division, in connection to the company’s use of illegal software to cheat carbon-emissions tests, Reuters reported Monday. Like many countries, Germany has set regulations on the amount of pollutants a diesel car is allowed to emit.

Volkswagen admitted in 2015 to using software to artificially lower its vehicles’ emissions levels. And so far, the US has led the most substantial investigation into the company, which has had to pay tens of billions of dollars in fines and settlements. Several executives have also been arrested or sentenced to prison in the US.

While Stadler is unlikely to be arrested by American authorities, research points to why the company’s actions were a big deal in the US. According to a 2015 study from MIT, an estimated 53,000 Americans died prematurely from road transportation-related particulate matter alone in 2005. Far fewer people – about 34,500 – died from car accidents that year.

Particulate matter isn’t the only kind of pollution that comes from cars, but it’s the most significant. That means the public health consequences of vehicle emissions could be even greater than MIT’s estimate.

For this reason, the World Health Organisation has called car pollution a “silent killer.”

Nationally, levels of air pollution (not just from cars) have declined over the past decade, but not in every state. The Environmental Protection Agency also recognises that car pollution continues to pose a danger to people in the US.

Air pollution from vehicles tends to be more prevalent in and near cities, as downtowns see more daily traffic than suburban or rural areas. Cities also tend to be close to highways, which often have high concentrations of particulate matter from car exhaust fumes.

Compared with cities in European and Asian countries, few US cities are tackling the problem. New York City – the city MIT researchers say has the highest vehicle-pollution levels – has slowly been decreasing the car traffic in some neighbourhoods. Some streets in popular Manhattan areas such as Times Square, Herald Square, and Madison Square Park are now closed to vehicles.

California has maintained the right to set its own air-pollution rules, which the EPA called too strict this spring. (According to MIT, 2,092 Angelenos died from road-related particulate matter in 2005.)

The EPA statement follows the Trump administration’s recent rollback of Obama-era emissions standards and rules from the 1970 the Clean Air Act. In late May, the agency submitted its proposal to lessen rules requiring carmakers to hit ambitious emissions standards by 2025. As airpollution experts have noted, the new standards could endanger the health of many more Americans in coming years.

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.