Exhaust, apes, and premature death

If media, so SPIEGEL ONLINE, reports on the health consequences of poor air, you can use it like a in scientific studies, used for calculating: the “premature death”.

Is a moot point.

In December 2017, the epidemiologist and mathematician Peter Morfeld of the Ruhr explained-University of Bochum on the “need to know”, the conference of German science journalists, and why these “premature deaths” are a questionable unit – “neither methodologically justified nor reasonable”.

Also in the “time” sets out Morfeld his view of things: The VW exhaust scandal have tasted in Germany, 500 people live? It was impossible to prove directly. A meaningful unity “lost life time” – in this case, the 5600 life would be years in the whole of Germany, respectively, to all the citizens, distributed in 37 minutes.

Sounds less dramatic. What is likely to be happy with VW.

Morfeld, “and was a member of numerous scientific bodies, for example, the MAK-Commission,” it says on the side of the “need to know”. What was, unfortunately, neither mentioned there nor in the “time”: It sat from 2008 to 2016 in the research Advisory Board of the European Association for research on environment and health in the transport sector, short-EUGT. Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW and Bosch had founded this organization in 2007, by 2017.

An example for the real Problem

This case is exemplary of the real Problem in scientific Work, such as those provided at the beginning of the week in the headlines: the experiments with monkeys, and Tests with people who carried out, among other things, in the order from Volkswagen or the auto industry were paid.

Contrary to the quick Outcry from politicians and the media, the human testing that took place in Aachen, Germany, were not, at least, to be objectionable ethically. From a scientific point of view, criticism is often used for points, but this is always the case, there are no perfect studies.

The crux in these experiments lies in a fact that took place in the reporting little attention: The proximity of science and industry – associated with the less pronounced will to make this transparent. To industry-funded research is by no means objectionable, you need to recognize but be clear. And experts with a conflict of interest should designate, in order to be credible.

Diesel a carcinogen?

What is the EUGT fact? In a brochure to the years 2012 to 2015 can read what are the goals of the organization followed.

As an example, the International cancer research Agency IARC 2012 diesel exhaust classified as carcinogenic in humans, promoted the EUGT Work that moved this result is not in doubt, even Morfeld published. The underlying studies were burdened with severe uncertainties, and the classification applies only for old diesel engines.

The degree of uncertainty in the science, in many Places, argue for epidemiology, it is disease and disease risks at the population level, as well as for climate science, or even for the extent and causes of insect death. The industry emphasizes the uncertainties, of its own responsibility, downplay, is a recurring pattern. Also reviews of the IARC are not beyond reproach.

The potentially different effects of new and old diesel engine emissions on health was the EUGT in the monkey test, which is open in the brochure, although today in the case of the car companies, no one of them wants to know.

Nitrogen dioxide – the study in Aachen

Also the possible damage caused by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) took on the EUGT. So far, no safe statements about the potential risk of NO2 for people at low environmental concentrations make, it says in the brochure. The contribution of the EUGT, the promotion of the well in the media hotly debated study from Aachen, in the case of the 25 healthy subjects, low nitrogen dioxide concentrations (NO2) have been exposed to. The result, according to the EUGT: No reactions to the inhaled NO2, no inflammatory effects in the respiratory tract. How reassuring! Disturbing Details, such as the one that the Aachen-based researchers write in conclusion that in people with cardiovascular adverse effects diseases more likely to be expected, do not appear on the site.

Peter Morfeld emphasizes that his scientific work was never restricted, even if the auto industry “had an interest”. The studies he has carried out for the EUGT, were published in renowned scientific magazines with Peer Review. Scientifically, the everything was flawless.

He also refers to an article on the topic of fine dust, which appeared in 2014 in the “apotheken Umschau” and in which he pointed out that the discussion on nitrogen oxides was only at the beginning. “Oxides of nitrogen would be just propagated by modern vehicles with reduced dust emission”, Morfeld cited there. The sentence, says the researcher, have not you heard of the EUGT, of course.

“Oh, what committees you sit anywhere”

His criticism of the “premature deaths” in the EUGT not an issue, says Morfeld. If he did not want to mention in his speech in front of journalists, nevertheless, had that he was in the EUGT? “Oh, what committees you sit anywhere. I had the EUGT already behind me,” he replies. Morfeld not left the Association in early 2016, “because they distanced themselves clearly from the VW scandal, and also it is not clear that the before the past studies were not affected”.

His first publication, he has submitted, however, as he was still sitting in the EUGT-Advisory Board, a temporal Overlap exists.

Scientifically speaking Morfeld has with his criticism of the “premature death”, and based on reports in the media, a point. He has fought the dispute successfully in specialist publications. A group of researchers whose work he criticized, turned. Morfeld noted in his lecture that the number of prematurely deceased quite larger, could be much greater than in the respective studies was calculated.

The unit definitely has weaknesses, and this starts with the included blur, even without a deeper knowledge of statistics: How much time is in a “premature death”? Someone is a decade, a month, or maybe just ten minutes earlier died?

There are Alternatives, which try to quantify this more precisely in time: years of life lost, as well as in disease (rather than health) experienced years of life.

The “premature deaths” focused mainly on the Public and politics, with science, you would not have much to do, says Morfeld in the “time”.

That sounds like a legitimate concern of a scientist is concerned, however, that, in his field, epidemiology, exaggerates your results. The note of a man, and not just in the scientific methodology.

However, it is also an objection of a researcher that sat for years in the body of a car lobby group and does not consider worth mentioning, when he declared to journalists that their reporting on the gas scandal, and the air pollution is too lurid.

Unfortunate conflict of interests

Such an unfortunate conflict of interests, which is not named openly, that does not inspire confidence in the research. This is all the more annoying when the argument raised is scientifically valid.

Morfeld themselves are also currently a loss of confidence: the industry in the research. He fears that other industries would not invest after the media fiasco with the EUGT in such partnerships. Appropriate studies would then have to be financed by the public sector.

“In retrospect, it would have been useful and desirable, if Mr. Morfeld had done his work for the EUGT and potential conflicts of interest transparent,” writes Holger Hettwer of the TU Dortmund University, project Manager of the “need to know” in an E-Mail to SPIEGEL ONLINE. In the future, you’ll speakers systematically for conflicts of interest issues.

Summarized: One of the scientists criticized in the unit of “premature deaths”, the exhaust gases, in particular for studies and air pollution appears in front of journalists. He does not mention, however, that he was for many years the car lobby organization EUGT. The case shows how important it is to be transparent with conflicts of interest and related to the Industry.