The focus of the Volkswagen diesel emissions news so far has been the legal and financial ramifications for the company. In the US alone, the company's regional boss, Michael Horn, has already been called before Congress as the embattled automaker faces potentially billions of dollars in fines. A new study, published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Research Letters, shifts that focus onto the human cost of the scandal.

A team from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the additional pollution caused by the 2.0-liter, turbodiesel four-cylinders and their emissions defeat devices could be responsible for 59 premature deaths in America alone.

59 deaths in a country of nearly 320 million people doesn't seem like a lot – until you realize that VW only sold around 482,000 of its high-pollution diesels here. The German company has recalled 11 million 2.0-liter diesels around the world. For the sake of simple math, let's say there're 60 premature deaths for every 500,000 diesel vehicles. Our back-of-napkin math works out to 1,320 premature deaths around the globe. While this is almost certainly an oversimplification on our part – a quick look at the methodology of the study is enough to show that coming up with an accurate global estimation would require far more than just multiplying the US findings – it gives a ballpark estimation of the human toll that VW's emissions cheat may have caused.

Beyond the estimates of premature deaths, the scientists from Harvard and MIT also estimate that the premature deaths had a societal cost of $450 million, and that if VW can fix all its affected vehicles in the US by the end of next year it will prevent an additional 130 early deaths. The study also notes that while VW warns of ozone exposure from the TDI's high NOx emissions being a major concern, it estimates that ozone was only responsible for 13 percent of early deaths. The rest were blamed on exposure to fine particulate matter.

If you've got a lot of time on your hands and the desire to read through the research findings, you can check out the entire study from Environmental Research Letters here.

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