German government condemns car firms' diesel emissions tests on humans, monkeys

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Volkswagen's supervisory board has called for an immediate inquiry into who commissioned tests in which monkeys were exposed to toxic diesel fumes. The German government said such studies were unjustifiable.
A research group funded by BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler had measured the effects of inhaling nitrogen oxide gases on 25 healthy human beings at a German university hospital. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN (AFP) - The German government on Monday (Jan 29) strongly condemned revelations that three carmakers 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 Sueddeutsche and Stuttgarter Zeitung dailies on Monday 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 United States 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.

"These tests on monkeys or even humans are in no way ethically justified," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert. "The indignation felt by many people is completely understandable."

Acting Transport Minister Christian Schmidt said: "I strongly condemn the exhaust tests. This has once again damaged trust in the auto industry."

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 Volkswagen'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 - and exposed the lengths carmakers have gone through to hide the harmful effects of dirty diesel.

All three German carmakers were at pains on Monday 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 told AFP, saying the Mercedes-Benz parent "condemns the experiments in the strongest terms."

In a statement, luxury carmaker 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 (2017).

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 were not representative of the wider population and did not 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 Volkswagen's "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.

Politicians from across Germany's party spectrum scrambled to repudiate the studies.

The reported experiments are "absurd and disgusting" said Stephan Weil, the Social Democratic state premier of Lower Saxony - home to Volkswagen's Wolfsburg headquarters and one of the car group's biggest shareholders.

The VW group "must meet all ethical requirements" and those responsible should have to face the consequences, added Weil, whose state holds two seats on Volkswagen's supervisory board.

The auto industry was "a sector that seems to have lost all scruples in its mania for cheating", Greens party transport spokesman Oliver Krischer tweeted.

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