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Opinion: The New Diesel Controversy is Ridiculous

In the 1970-s, pollution control and environmentalism in general was something parts of the German left fought for. The movement rallied against nuclear power as well as air and water pollution. Back then, hardly any conservatives or liberals took the movement seriously. They branded the participants violent radicals who had not been brought up properly and needed a haircut.

But then it turned out those long-haired “radicals”, those who kept on demanding clean air, were right. Until recently, everyone, including most conservatives, agreed that the breathing air in German cities needs to be improved. It seemed like there was a consensus, finally, after decades of name-calling and arguments.

Then one single talk show on national television screwed it all up again, it seems. Professor Dieter Köhler, a retired lung doctor, said in the ARD’s ‘Hart aber fair‘ broadcast, the existing limit values for nitric oxide and particulate matter (PM) were completely exaggerated. A health hazard in this regard could not be proved.

Not only did Professor Köhler’s comments trigger a new discussion about Diesel engines and and particulate matter limits, but also an avalanche of demands from liberal and conservative politicians who suddenly want to get rid of the existing limits.

According to the ‘Bild’ daily, the FDP’s Wolfgang Kubicki wants a new “scientific evaluation”. His party colleague Katja Suding was quoted saying limit values doubted by scientists “should not jeopardize the citizens’ mobility.” The latest ‘Bild’ article reads, even members of Angela Merkel’s CDU were “getting real” now.

Professor Köhler, who could easily be mistaken for a lobbyist sent by the auto industry, which by the way should keep a low profile in this discussion also because of the Diesel scandal it is responsible for, went even further. With more than a hundred colleagues he signed an open letter in which he repeated his claim, saying particulate matter hardly harmed people.

Berlin politicians, who are suddenly jumping on this bandwagon by behaving like their predecessors did in the 1970-s, are not only endangering our children’s health, but also ignoring important aspects.

  1. Nobody has sent scientific proof for Professor Köhler’s claims to the World Health Organization (WHO) or European authorities responsible for clean air, in order to change the organization’s suggestions regarding particulate matter and nitric oxide limits. If they are so keen on inhaling more particulate matter, they should do so first. And if they are saying the WHO’s numbers, according to which PM2.5, the smallest particles, account for 4.2 million people deaths per year, are wrong, they should substantiate their statements really well.
  2. Köhler’s position, which the industry is happy about, already lead to a strong objection. The ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung‘ daily quotes a dissenting statement by Professor Tobias Welte from the Medical Academy of Hanover. Along with 14 representatives of the International Forum of Respiratory Societies (FIRS), Professor Welte says he fully agrees with the European and the WHO’s standards.

The declaration signed by Welte and his FIRS collaegues, quoted by the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung‘, says the acute effects of air pollution were the most noticeable, “but the chronic effects are the most deadly. Cancers, heart disease, birth defects, and even dementia have been linked to air pollution, with fine inhalable particles having diameters generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller, called PM2.5, and Diesel exhaust often being the culprits.”

Here’s some more advice for Professor Köhler and those who would give anything to believe him: Go to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, during the winter. Get a hotel room in which the windows can actually be opened and wait for a windless night. Sleep with an open window. When you get up in the morning you will feel like you smoked 200 cigarettes within an hour.

I have lived in Sofia for many years. On a regular basis, the particulate matter concentration is up to 25 higher than the European limits. The terrible fact that Bulgaria has an extremely high number of air pollution-related deaths is no surprise. In this extreme environment, anyone will believe the danger is real. They will feel it.

This ridiculous German discussion should not be about getting back into the ignorance of the 1970s by swiping it all under the carpet, but about improving the air quality, and doing so right now.