Protesters demostrate against experiments
The German car industry is in hot water again, this time over tests of the effects of diesel exhaust fumes on monkeys and humans. But despite the negative connotations of human experimentation, are the breast-beating and disgust well-informed?
The two studies at the centre of the controversy were commissioned by the now-defunct European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, a research group fully funded by Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW.
A report in the New York Times revealed that ten monkeys had been exposed to exhaust fumes from a 1999 Ford diesel pickup and from a late-model Volkswagen. The 2014 study, conducted by the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, in Albuquerque, did not reach a conclusive finding. In any case, the results were completely unreliable. Volkswagen had provided the researchers with a car whose emissions controls had been manipulated so that it would generate far less pollution in a test than on the open road.
The second experiment was conducted in Germany at a hospital in Aachen in 2013. A couple of dozen humans were exposed to varying concentrations of nitrogen dioxide under controlled conditions, and with the approval of an ethics committee. There were no negative effects upon the participants in the study.
When the news emerged, it created a sensation in Germany. The three car manufacturers distanced themselves from the studies.
"Volkswagen Group explicitly distances itself from all forms of animal cruelty. Animal testing contradicts our own ethical standards," VW said in a statement issued on Saturday. "We ask forgiveness for this bad behaviour and for the poor judgment of some individuals.” "The BMW Group in no way influenced the design or methodology of studies carried out on behalf of the EUGT," BMW said in a statement. "Daimler does not tolerate or support unethical treatment of animals," said Daimler.
German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks was horrified: "What is known so far is disgusting ... The fact that an entire industry has apparently tried to conceal brazen and dubious methods of scientific research makes it even more monstrous."
While the monkey experiment seems to have been poorly designed and tainted by the lies of VW, the human experiment was a standard piece of industry-related research. As Canadian-German bioethicist Udo Schuklenk pointed out on his blog:
This study received the required ethics approval, the trial participants were healthy volunteers who gave first person informed consent to trial participation. It is unclear to me here why German politicians and board members of VW, BMW and Mercedes are falling over one another to condemn this research. It seems to me that no fraud was committed, and the question seems scientifically sound.
Similar research is conducted in other countries. Across the border in the Netherlands, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) "is involved in research in which volunteers ... are exposed to diluted emissions from a diesel engine" for a maximum of two hours, Flemming Cassee, a toxicologist at the organisation told AFP. "We've been doing it for years, and there is nothing extraordinary about it," he said, adding that the situation was the same in "many countries".
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