VW Suspends Chief Lobbyist Over Diesel Tests on Monkeys and Humans

By William Boston Features Dow Jones Newswires

Volkswagen AG Tuesday suspended a senior executive amid mounting outrage over revelations this week that the car maker had conducted experiments on animal and humans in an effort to disprove links between diesel fumes and respiratory illnesses.

Continue Reading Below

The experiments were carried out in 2013 by a laboratory in the U.S. and commissioned by a European research group owned by Volkswagen, BMW AG and Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars.

On Thursday, the New York Times reported the monkey experiments but added that a VW Beetle used for it was in fact rigged so that the animals were exposed to less concentrated fumes than advertised.

In an unrelated experiment, 25 people were connected to respirators and breathed a concentration that included nitrogen oxide, or NOx, the toxic particle contained in diesel emissions.

The revelations sparked an uproar in Germany over the use of animals and humans in dubious tests that appeared aimed at fooling the public to believe diesel emissions posed no public health hazard. They have plunged the auto companies into a public relations crisis and subjected them to harsh criticism from government officials and animal rights advocates.

On Tuesday, Volkswagen said it had suspended Thomas Steg, a former government spokesman now in charge of the company's external communications and chief lobbyist.

Continue Reading Below

The company is investigating whether Mr. Steg knew about the experiments. VW said it had accepted Mr. Steg's request that he be suspended. It didn't say whether he would remain on full pay. Mr. Steg couldn't be contacted for comment.

Before the announcement, Volkswagen Chief Executive Matthias Müller, who became CEO in 2015 to handle the diesel scandal, had condemned the experiments as "unethical and revolting," saying they had nothing to do with scientific research. "There are things that you just don't do," he said.

BWW and Mercedes condemned the experiments and distanced themselves from the study.

The European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, known by its German initials E.U.G.T., which commissioned the experiments, was disbanded in 2017 in the wake of growing controversy over its work. The group was an industry lobby organization that aimed to provide scientific data to underpin industry initiatives and support technology goals.

The experiments that used monkeys in the labs of Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., aimed to prove that Euro 6 diesel engines, the most advanced diesel technology, are cleaner than older technology and posed no health hazards. They wanted to show that banning diesel vehicles from urban traffic would have little impact on public health.

During the experiments, monkeys were put in sealed containers and forced to breath diesel fumes from a running car.

Another experiment had 25 humans breathe elevated levels of nitrogen oxide fumes, a toxic pollutant contained in diesel emissions, to study the impact of NOx emissions in the workplace.

German media complained that the experiments raised the specter of Nazi gas chambers and damaged German industry's international reputation.

Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, said "these experiments on monkeys, and even on people, cannot be ethically justified in any way."

The affair has cast a shadow over the industry's lobbying efforts and could further weaken consumer confidence in diesel technology, which has fallen dramatically since the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015.

Andrea Thomas contributed to this article.

Write to William Boston at william.boston@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 30, 2018 11:00 ET (16:00 GMT)