FRANKFURT (AFP) – German carmakers came under fire yesterday following revelations they helped finance experiments that saw humans and monkeys exposed to toxic diesel fumes that have been linked to asthma, lung diseases and heart attacks.
The disclosures sparked widespread outrage, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel who strongly condemned
the latest controversy to hit the nation’s auto industry.
“These tests on monkeys or even humans are in no way ethically justified,” said Ms Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert. “The indignation felt by many people is completely understandable.”
Earlier yesterday the Sueddeutsche and Stuttgarter Zeitung dailies reported that a research group funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW had measured the effects of inhaling nitrogen oxide gases on 25 healthy human beings at a German university hospital. The revelation came just days after the New York Times wrote that the same organisation carried out tests on monkeys in the US in 2014.
According to the article, the researchers locked 10 monkeys into airtight chambers and made them breathe in diesel exhausts from a VW Beetle while watching cartoons.
Volkswagen apologised for the animal testing in
a statement at the weekend, saying the group “distances itself clearly from all forms of animal abuse”.
It was VW’s admission in 2015 that it had manipulated 11 million cars with cheating software to make them seems less polluting than they were that brought close scrutiny to the industry.
All three German carmakers were at pains yesterday to distance themselves from the research body in question – the now defunct European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT).
“We are appalled by the extent of the studies and their implementation,” a Daimler spokesman said, saying the Mercedes-Benz parent “condemns the experiments in the strongest terms”.
In a statement, BMW said it “did not participate in the mentioned studies”.
While it was the EUGT that commissioned the tests on humans on monkeys, the organisation itself was financed by the three carmakers hoping its research would defend diesel’s environmentally-friendly reputation – and the valuable tax breaks that go with it.
The car companies decided in late 2016 to dissolve the EUGT, which finally shut its doors last year.
The tests involving 25 human volunteers were commissioned in 2012 at
a university hospital in the German city of Aachen. As part of the study, the participants were exposed for several hours to different levels of NO2 concentrations in a lab.
The researchers detected “no significant effects” from the inhaled nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – the most toxic form of nitrogen oxide and commonly found in diesel exhausts, according to
a summary of the study published in 2016.
But Thomas Kraus, the head of the relevant department at the university hospital in Aachen, told German media the findings were limited as they weren’t representative of the wider population and didn’t take into account general air pollution.
The institute separately released a statement stressing the study had been approved by the university hospital’s ethics commission. The
study was carried out before “dieselgate” erupted and was not linked to diesel emissions testing or to experiments involving monkeys, it added.
On its website the World Health Organisation points to “growing evidence” that nitrogen dioxide exposure “can increase symptoms of bronchitis and asthma, as well as lead to respiratory infections and reduced lung function and growth”. Exposure is “linked to premature mortality… from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases,” it states.