Car Companies Under Fire for Animal Testing

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Illustration by Natalie Dye | Staff Illustrator

Ziqiang Zhao

Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler received widespread condemnation for testing diesel fumes on monkeys and humans after a New York Times article published Jan. 25 detailed the extent of the abuses, which added to the turmoil of Volkswagen’s ongoing “dieselgate” scandal. Although only recently discovered, the animal testing took place in 2014. Over the past two years, VW has also fallen under scrutiny for its role in a diesel emissions testing scandal. The scandal quickly spread out and has cost Volkswagen about $30 million dollars.

The European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) sponsored the most recent tests. They were approved before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that VW had used a “defeat device” to cheat on emissions tests.

In one test, 10 live macaques were exposed to exhaust fumes from diesel powered vehicles. The monkeys were kept in a sealed chamber pumped full of the fumes. After the exposure, EUGT measured the health impact on the monkeys. According to DW, “monkeys who inhaled VW fumes showed a higher degree of bronchial inflammation in blood and endoscope samples.”

Volkswagen hoped the test would prove that modern diesel technology had reduced the emission of harmful chemicals down to a level safe for humans to breathe. “Instead, it has shed unwelcome light on the methods that the carmakers had used to influence political debate,” according to a different New York Times article.

Animal rights groups also expressed their displeasure with the automakers.

“There is nothing fair about condemning these complex, sensitive animals to suffer physical suffering and psychological torment in laboratories where they are caged and deprived of fresh air, sunshine, freedom of movement, the companionship of others, and just about everything else that makes any life worth living,” wrote Harald Ullmann, Vice President of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), in a letter to the VW chief executive Matthias Müller after the tests.

Humans were a part of the tests as well. As part of the study, 25 people were exposed to different degrees of nitrogen dioxide for three hours. The experiments were designed to determine the possible health effects of the chemical compounds in diesel exhaust.

Daimler admitted that they “believe the animal tests in this study were unnecessary and repulsive” and has pledged not to test on animals again; they are simultaneously trying to distance themselves from the study, according to Reuters. BMW has also denounced the study. The company suspended Thomas Steg, the head of external relations and sustainability for Volkswagen, after he admitted that he knew about the monkey experiment as early as 2014.

The seriousness of the scandal has come to the attention of governments. “These tests on monkeys or even people are in no ethical way justifiable and raise many critical questions about those who are behind the tests,” said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

The new scandal has also further complicated Volkswagen’s previous conflict. Volkswagen is currently appealing for a delayed trial because the company claims that one lawyer’s comments about the monkey-testing scandal could influence the jury.

After VW admitted to using cheat devices on emissions tests, the company faces greater query and isolation. Wherever the case ends up, it promises to attract plenty of public interest and scrutiny.