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Are diesel vehicles causing thousands of deaths in Europe?

Europe has twice as many diesel vehicles as the rest of the world combined, and it could be taking a bigger toll on public health than previously believed.

A team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute have conducted a new study to find out how the air pollution produced by diesel vehicles in Europe may contribute to the annual pollution-related deaths on the continent.

They found that emissions from diesel cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles may be linked to as many as 10,000 premature deaths per year. Half of those deaths may have been prevented if laboratory testing of diesel vehicle emissions had been accurate, the scientists said.

“Modern engine controls have been optimized by manufacturers for the specific laboratory testing but underperform in real-driving,” the scientists said, referring to earlier research on diesel emissions.

About 425,000 deaths in Europe are linked to air pollution each year, the researchers said in a press release. The vast majority of those deaths – about 90 percent – stem from cardiovascular or respiratory diseases linked to nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide, abbreviated NOx, the scientists said.

The problem is exacerbated by Europe’s large number of diesel cars, trucks and other automobiles. Diesel vehicles have been found to produce up to 10 times more NOx than buses despite being substantially smaller.

“If diesel car emissions were as low as petrol car emissions, three quarters or about 7,500 premature deaths could have been avoided,” said Dr. Jens Borken-Kleefeld, a transportation expert for the IIASA.

The vast majority of the premature deaths are in France, Germany and Italy, the researchers said. However, due to other types of air pollution and other environmental factors, the risk per capita is much higher in northern Italy, they said.

The study will be published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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