VW diesel pollution health impacts

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation to the automaker Volkswagen after it was discovered that the company illegally installed software on many of its diesel vehicles. The software allowed the vehicles to pass emissions tests when, in reality, they were emitting between 10 and 40 times the permitted levels of harmful nitrogen oxides. These actions violated both the federal and state Clean Air Acts, violations that Volkswagen resolved in a series of settlements in 2016. 

We are managing $112.7 million from one of the three federal settlements, and $28.4 million from the state settlement, to reduce air pollution from transportation in Washington. 

How diesel pollution affects your health

Diesel exhaust contains fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. Both the state and federal Volkswagen settlements focus on efforts to reduce the effects of nitrogen oxides on public health. According to the EPA, a single year of elevated emissions from the affected VW vehicles could lead to as many as 50 premature deaths nationwide, 3,000 lost workdays, and $423 million in economic costs.

In warm weather, hot sunlight bakes nitrogen oxides together with other pollutants which forms harmful smog, also known as ground-level ozone.

Ground-level ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue and damages peoples' health. You might think of it as sunburn on your lungs. Breathing ground-level ozone can lead to several types of health problems such as:

Coughing, throat, and chest irritation Difficulty breathing and lung damage Worsening asthma symptoms

Where the affected vehicles were registered

Approximately 24,000 Volkswagen vehicles with the fraudulent software were registered in Washington when the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice discovered the scandal. We estimate about 87 percent of the affected vehicles are registered in 13 counties: Benton, Clark, Franklin, Island, Kitsap, King, Pierce, Skagit, Spokane, Thurston, Whatcom, and Yakima. The remaining 13 percent were dispersed throughout the remaining 26 counties. 

A map of Washington showing that the majority of affected VW vehicles are in urban areas and along interstate corridors.

View the text version of this map.

Areas affected by the pollution 

We maintain an extensive air monitoring network and inventory of air pollutants throughout the state, allowing us to track high levels of pollution. We find high concentrations of nitrogen oxides from diesel emissions along transportation corridors and in larger cities.

The map below shows estimated nitrogen oxides emissions in Washington. Some of these sources are from: 

  • On-road vehicles such as cars, trucks, and semi-trucks.
  • Off-road vehicles and equipment such as construction equipment, agricultural equipment, and service vehicles at airports. 
  • Marine vessels and pleasure craft, fuel use by various industries, and railroad equipment.
  • Stationary diesel generators.
A map of Washington showing that most diesel pollution is in urban areas and along interstate and highway corridors.

View the text version of this map.

Determining disproportionately impacted communities

The Department of Health worked with us to modify the Washington Tracking Network (a tool that tracks environmental and public health data), to help identify communities that are disproportionately affected by diesel pollution.