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Volkswagen animal tests—What really happened?

6 February 2018

Volkswagen and other German automakers have funded diesel emission research involving tests on animals and humans. The revelations made headlines throughout the media in Germany and around the world, sparking an uproar and condemnation of the auto companies.

In the aftermath of the VW emission scandal, and marking the all-time low in public trust of the German automotive industry, the mainstream media immediately assumed that tests involving animals and humans were performed to deceive the public opinion and make it believe that diesel emissions pose no health hazard. It was argued that the use of animals and humans to prop up corporate agendas was ethically reprehensible and could not be accepted. German politicians and the German government quickly followed the media by condemning the research, the auto industry sponsors, as well as the involved scientists. “The indignation felt by many people is completely understandable,” said the spokesman for Angela Merkel. “These tests on monkeys or even humans are in no way ethically justified.”

Volkswagen responded to the new public relation crisis by suspending Thomas Steg, its Head of Group External Relations and Sustainability. The company reportedly said it had launched an investigation into the tests on monkeys and humans which it considered “superfluous and repulsive”.

And yet, what really happened appears to have been entirely legitimate, high quality medical research dealing with important and relevant pollution issues, conducted by some of the most reputable research institutions in the United States and in Germany. Notwithstanding the general fact that corporations that sponsor scientific research often expect favorable results, there is no idication that the research in this case was biased due to the auto industry funding.

The revelations are related to two studies conducted in 2013-2015, supported by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), an organization founded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. EUGT was dissolved in 2017.

In the LRRI study monkeys were exposed to the exhaust from a 1997 Ford pick-up truck and a 2013 VW Beetle, according to the Bild newspaper who saw one version of the LRRI test report. The results reportedly turned out to be not what Volkswagen had expected—the animals exposed to exhaust from the old F250 pick-up without a diesel particulate filter or NOx aftertreatment showed fewer signs of inflammation than monkeys exposed to exhaust from the emission-controlled VW Beetle. This intriguing result—which has never been explained—received little focus in the mainstream media. The final report was completed in 2017, but has not been made public.

The RWTH University research with human volunteers was an occupational health study. Its focus was whether NO2 exposures at various concentration levels would have biological effects on workers, such as welders, vehicle mechanics or truck drivers. The studied exposure concentrations were lower than those in some of the respective workplaces. The study was led by Thomas Kraus, who is a leading researcher in the field of occupational medicine. “Extremely sensitive, non-invasive techniques were used to capture the biological response, in line with the best available methodology and based on years of development work,” said the RWTH University. A scientific paper based on the study results was published in 2016.

None of the media reports surrounding the matter showed that the applicable ethical, professional or procedural standards have been broken in any of the studies. Human and animal experiments are a very common tool used by toxicological research. “Such studies have been performed for decades,” said Flemming Cassee, a toxicologist from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health (RIVM). “And not only in the Netherlands, but worldwide, including in Germany.”

The methodology of the two studies must have been subject to approval by “a fully independent medical-ethical committee,” said Cassee.

Source: Deutsche Welle | Bild | Volkswagen