‘Not a single death’ Diesel fumes no serious health hazard, German doctors claim

A group of lung specialists called for a review of current emission limits for nitrogen dioxide and particle dust. Car lobby groups, keen to halt a crackdown on diesel, embraced the dissenting statement.
Quelle: Imago
Why don’t you just take a deep breath? The doctors said it’s safe.
(Source: Imago)

More than 100 German pulmonologists have signed a paper casting doubt on the health risks posed by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particle dust in a move that fueled the country’s debate about driving bans for older diesel vehicles.

The former president of the German Respiratory Society (DGP), Dieter Köhler, contradicted his own organization’s current stance by writing that most existing studies on the dangers caused by diesel emissions were questionable.

The DGP had issued a lengthy notice at the end of November warning of the health risks of NO2. It based its stance on research by the renowned Helmholtz Institute for Environmental Medicine which said NO2 caused major health risks even in relatively low concentrations such as the current limit of an annual average of 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

But Köhler told broadcaster NDR: “The current limit for NO2 and particle dust is completely harmless and doesn’t cause a single death.” His statement and the more than 100 signatures backing it were released Wednesday in a joint statement by the DGP, the German Lung Foundation and the Association of Pulmonology Clinics.

The DGP’s current president, Hamburg pulmonologist Klaus Rabe, admitted to NDR that there was considerable debate over the dangers of NO2 and that the number of doctors who disagreed with the society’s current position was greater than expected. It has around 4,000 members.

The conflict among lung experts could have a major impact on the scandal that was triggered by the revelation in 2015 that VW had been illegally tampering with diesel emissions.

The diesel controversy has culminated in German courts ordering driving bans for older diesel cars in various cities across the country, including Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin. Those diesel bans are based on European limits for NO2 and particle dust, which were found to be often violated in Germany’s congested cities.

Stuttgart, home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, imposed a ban on older diesel vehicles this month. But the head doctor of the city’s Red Cross Clinic, Martin Hetzel, shares Köhler’s criticism, telling NDR: “In the hospital, you don’t come across any diseases of the lung or heart caused by particle dust or NO2.” The low concentrations of pollutants cannot “plausibly be causing the health damage and deaths that are currently being published,” he added.

The auto lobby is delighted

Such unexpected criticism by respected health specialists was music to the car lobby’s ears. Germany’s influential automobile club ADAC urged the European Union to review its air pollution limits. “If citizens are hit by driving bans, they should at least be certain that the applicable limits are scientifically justified,” an ADAC official told news agency DPA on Wednesday. VDA, the German automakers’ association, called for clarity about the effects of nitrogen oxides in the air. “The more facts come into the debate, the better,” the automotive association added.

But the director of the Munich-based Helmholtz German Research Center for Environmental Health, Annette Peters, doubled down on the findings of the study her institute carried out for Germany’s federal environment agency. She told NDR diesel fumes were responsible for 6,000 deaths a year in the country.

The German Environment Agency is also sticking to its position that diesel emissions cause thousands of premature deaths. Wolfgang Straff, a medical expert at the agency, told NDR: “With every 10 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter the number of people who develop certain diseases, for example cardiovascular disease, increases.”

Another study by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry that has not been published yet says particle dust causes around 120,000 premature deaths per year in Germany alone. That’s almost twice the figure stated by the European Environment Agency in 2017.

But Germany’s transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, said the 100 doctors’ intervention was important and overdue. “The scientific approach has the weight to overcome the approach of banning, restricting and making people angry,” Scheuer, who is well-known for his pro-car leanings, told publishing group Funke. It would help to bring “objectivity and facts” into the diesel debate, the minister added.

Thomas Trösch, a science editor with Handelsblatt, contributed to this article. It was adapted into English by David Crossland and edited by Jean-Michel Hauteville for Handelsblatt Today. To reach the authors: [email protected].