Humans were exposed to the toxic fumes in experiments requested by a group funded by German carmakers, according to media reports. The shocking revelation came after tests on monkeys became public over the weekend.Reports by German newspapers Stuttgarter Zeitung and Süddeutsche Zeitung said humans had been exposed to a gas found in diesel fumes during an experiment “sometime between 2012 and 2015” requested by a group funded by German carmakers.
The tests were requested by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) — a now defunct organization founded by German carmakers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW.
The experiments focused on “short-term nitrogen dioxide inhalation by healthy people,” according to the newspapers. An Aachen-based university hospital then examined 25 people after they inhaled varying amounts of the gas over several hours.
The experiments were reported on after recent revelations of an experiment where — in equally controversial tests — monkeys were made to inhale the toxic gas.
Not to be tolerated
Reacting to the accusations, Volkswagen said in a statement “we are convinced that the scientific methods chosen at the time were wrong.”
Daimler said Sunday it was “shocked by the extent of those studies and the way there were carried out.”
“We strongly condemn the tests,” the company said, adding that it had had no say in the testing method and the measures taken by the EUGT were “against Daimler’s values and ethical principles.”
The Stuttgart-based carmaker said it had launched an investigation into the tests on monkeys and humans which it considered “superfluous and repulsive.”
German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said later on Monday she was “horrified” by the news.
“What is known so far is disgusting,” she said, adding that the auto industry and the scientific community must explain their role. “The fact that an entire industry has apparently tried to conceal brazen and dubious methods of scientific research makes it even more monstrous.”
Ethics commitee ok’ed research
No experiments on animals or humans can take place in Germany without a green light from an authorized ethics committee, in this case at Aachen University Hospital, and this was the case with the tests carried out by occupational doctor, Professor Thomas Kraus of the hospital.
In 2013, 25 healthy volunteers were exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution for three hours, Kraus said. “None of them had any negative health effects,” he told the German press agency DPA on Monday, adding that the tests were on the effects of the pollutants in the workplace.
Professional drivers and people who live or work on busy roads are particularly prone to suffer from heavy nitrogen oxide pollution, he said.
Since 2010, an annual average of 40 micrograms NO2 per cubic meter of air must not be exceeded in the EU. In outdoor workplaces, this must not exceed 200 micrograms over a period of one hour, while in closed rooms it may be up to 950 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
Potential conflict of interest
The EUGT backed the study, Kraus said, but did not impinge on the research in any way.
The Ethics Committee of Aachen University Hospital – a self-regulating body – consists of physicians, a lawyer with qualifications as a judge, a pharmacist, an ethicist and a patient representative. Most are employees of the university.
This kind of composition for university ethics committees is normal, Professor Bert Heinrichs, from the Institute for Science and Ethics at the University of Bonn, told DW. “The commission was completely independent in arriving at its decisions, in particular from those that financed the research,” he said.
“Ethics committees can impose conditions and refuse to do research, so there is no immediate dependency,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, these commissions are very conscientious. The system of German ethics committees has proved itself in recent decades and is really a good and recognized one,” Heinrichs said.
In the case of these experiments, however, an air pollutant but no medically active substance was used on the subjects. “That makes the case a bit more complicated and it is therefore not comparable with a drug-compatibility study,” Heinrichs said.
“Of course, the doctor is a doctor and thus committed to the well-being of the patient, but in this specific situation he appears as a researcher – as a scientist. It is very important that he makes that clear to the subject.”
“The Aachen ethics committee would have had good reasons to accept the research project, but it was unusual that an environmental toxin would be tested on a human, even if a threat was very unlikely. Human trials are usually about drug trials. Of course, one wonders, was it really worth it?” Heinrichs asked.
hg/jd (dpa, Reuters)