The public health legacy of dieselgate

November 16, 2022

The Dieselgate scandal rocked the car industry in 2015 when carmakers were caught cheating vehicle emissions tests. Seven years later, very little has changed.   

There are still an estimated 8.5 million vehicles on UK roads that pollute several times above the legal limit. These vehicles are not limited to one manufacturer or a few models but are present across the industry.

There is no way for people to know how harmful they are, or the true impact of the Dieselgate scandal.

Illegal levels of emissions have already had shocking implications for public health, with up to 40,000 premature deaths every year in the UK linked to air pollution.  

Research has now emerged, giving a clearer picture of the harm caused by polluted air, including risks to unborn babies and a raised risk of autism, cancer, and dementia.  

Increased harm to unborn babies

A new study revealed that air pollution particles can reach babies in the mother’s womb, which may affect key organ development. For the first time ever, researchers at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and Hasselt University, Belgium, found soot nanoparticles can cross the placenta and travel into organs of foetuses. 

Researchers examined 60 mothers and their babies in Aberdeen and the Grampian region in Scotland and found ‘black carbon particles’ (which are emitted when diesel, coal and other biomass fuels are burned) in the umbilical cord blood. These particles were also found in the livers, lungs, and brains of aborted foetuses.  

 The level of particles was linked to the amount of air pollution the mother was exposed to during pregnancy.

Increased risk of autism

A study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has determined that the risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in early childhood is increased by 64% with exposure to micrograms of particulate air pollution (PM2.5 ) per cubic meter of air (mcg/m3).  

Previous studies have shown that particle matter (PM) can deposit and penetrate cells in the body and cause neurological effects often associated with ASD. The Harvard study pool, however, has shown an increased risk of ASD due to PM exposure during the third trimester of pregnancy and early childhood, when the brain is more vulnerable to internal and external environmental hazards.   

Increased risk of mortality for cancers

The impact of air pollution on lung conditions has been long documented. However, a new study has suggested that pollution is also associated with increased mortality risk for several other forms of cancer, such as breast, liver and pancreatic cancer.

Shockingly, for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3) of increased exposure to particulate air pollution (PM2.5 ), the risk of dying from any form of cancer rose by 22%, with breast cancer patients given an increased 80% risk of mortality.  

A further study by University College London has made a breakthrough in our understanding of how air pollution leads to cancer. It revealed that air pollution wakes up old cells, which are damaged as we grow and age. This means that cancer develops from these old cells, rather than from healthy new cells as previously believed, with air pollution being the cause of one in ten cases of lung cancer. 

Increased risk of dementia

More recently, a worrying correlation has been found between high levels of air pollution and dementia. The effect of illegal levels of emissions in increasing air pollution is particularly concerning, especially since dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are the leading cause of death in England and Wales. If the Dieselgate allegations are correct, manufacturers could end up being blamed for a rise in these kind of illnesses.

Disproportionally affects people of colour and exacerbates health inequalities 

Air pollution also disproportionally affects people of colour in England, who are three times more likely to live in neighbourhoods with high air pollution. A Friends of the Earth analysis of government data reveals that there are 2,546 neighbourhoods in England where average air pollution levels are double WHO guidelines for at least one of two deadliest air pollutants.  

UK Government not leading by example

The installation of defeat devices has had a lasting legacy, and people’s health in towns and cities across the country has suffered as a result 

There has been little to no action by the UK Government to tackle the serious consequences of illegal levels of air pollution. Unlike other countries, the UK has missed an opportunity to reduce avoidable pollution that is likely to have contributed to thousands of unnecessary early deaths.  

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a parliamentary select committee, has criticised the government for having very little idea of how much public money is being spent addressing air quality across all departments and “central government has not always got the balance right”, being “prescriptive in some respects while seeming to avoid responsibilities that naturally sit at a national level in others”.  

More than seven years on from the Dieselgate scandal, the UK continues to lag behind nations such as Australia, Canada, Germany, South Korea and the US – who have all implemented a mixture of recall orders for vehicles fitted with defeat devices and agreed on compensation payments for vehicle owners. 

That is why Pogust Goodhead is committed to ensuring drivers impacted receive justice and will work tirelessly to hold the automotive companies to account. 

Head to to learn more about our Dieselgate claims.

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