Germany’s environment minister rejected Monday calls for a halt to roadside emissions tests that found excessive air pollution and fueled fears of a widespread ban on diesel cars in cities.
An open letter published last week and signed by some 100 doctors questioned whether existing limits on pollutants from cars were justified.
The letter sparked a debate in Germany about the basis for pollution prevention measures and was welcomed by politicians such as Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, who called it “an important and overdue step toward bringing objectivity and facts into the diesel debate.”
But others dismissed the idea that decades of scientific research into the harmful effects of fine particle pollution and nitrogen dioxide should be reconsidered.
“At the moment there is no reason to demand additional reviews or moratoriums,” Environment Minister Svenja Schulze told reporters in Berlins. He added that the thresholds are already subject to regular reviews.
“The solution isn’t for us to give up our demands for cleaner air,” said Schulze. “The solution is for cars to get cleaner and alternatives to cars to become more attractive.”
Germany’s pollution limits are set at the European level and are similar to, or higher, than those in other industrialized countries.
Dr. Christian Witt, a pulmonologist at Berlin’s renowned Charite Hospital, said there have been thousands of published studies into the health impacts of nitrogen oxide and tiny particles known as PM2.5 that can penetrate deep into people’s lungs.
The Forum of International Respiratory Societies, a global body with over 70,000 members, says PM2.5 is linked to both acute and chronic medical conditions, especially respiratory diseases.
“Cancers, heart disease, birth defects, and even dementia have been linked to air pollution, with PM2.5 and diesel exhaust often being the culprits,” the group said.
The World Health Organization has called air pollution a “silent epidemic” that particularly affects the sick, the vulnerable and the poor.
In 2015, U.S. regulators uncovered that automakers such as Volkswagen were systematically cheating on diesel emissions tests. The revelations were a blow to the German auto industry, which had touted diesel vehicles as a cleaner, less polluting alternative to gasoline-powered engines.
Separately, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday that there are no plans for universal speed limits on the country’s highways. Environmentalists had said limiting speeds could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars, which Germany has failed to cut over the past decade.