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VW suspends exec in Lovelace research institute scandal

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute study that used 10 monkeys to test the effects of breathing tailpipe exhaust has entangled the Albuquerque organization in Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal.

The automaker announced Tuesday that it has suspended its head of external relations and sustainability in response to controversy over experiments in which monkeys were exposed to diesel exhaust.

The company said in a statement Tuesday that Thomas Steg was stepping away from his duties at his own request. Steg had said in an interview published in the Bild newspaper that he had known about the experiment but did not inform the company’s then-CEO, Martin Winterkorn.

A European organization financed by Volkswagen and two other German automakers, Daimler and BMW, commissioned the animal study in 2014, according to the New York Times. That was a year before VW faced global condemnation for installing emissions-cheating software on diesel-based cars to fool public regulators about the level of nitrogen oxides emitted by its vehicles.

LRRI conducted the study in 2015 to measure the health effects of breathing diesel exhaust from a Volkswagen Beetle as part of VW’s efforts to show that newer models emitted less pollution, according to the Times report. But LRRI unknowingly used a Volkswagen Beetle that was equipped with VW’s emissions-altering technology, which automatically lowered NO x levels whenever testing occurred.

VW and the other automakers are now facing a public backlash for the LRRI tests as cruelty against animals. The companies are distancing themselves from the study, which the Times first reported last Friday, blaming it instead on the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, EUGT.

That’s the organization that contracted LRRI. But it was automaker money that originally launched the EUGT in 2007 and funded its operations. The auto companies decided to disband it last year.

“We are conscious of our social and corporate responsibilities and are taking the criticism regarding the study very seriously,” said a Volkswagen Group statement on Monday to a variety of news organizations. “We know that the scientific methods used by EUGT were wrong and apologize sincerely for this.”

Daimler said it has launched an investigation.

“We are appalled by the nature and extent of the studies and their implementation,” that company said in a statement. “We condemn the experiments in the strongest terms.”

In the study, LRRI placed 10 macaque monkeys in an airtight chamber while tailpipe exhaust was pumped into the room, according to the Times report. The monkeys watched cartoons during hours of tests to help keep them calm, according to a sworn deposition by Jake McDonald, the LRRI scientist who oversaw the project.

The company said it did not know that the Volkswagen Beetle supplied for the study was rigged.

“Unbeknownst to LRRI, Volkswagen modified the engine in order to produce less pollution than it otherwise would have,” LRRI President and CEO Robert Rubin said in a statement emailed to the Journal. “When we learned of this deception, we determined the study was compromised. LRRI does not intend to publish this study, because we do not know the specifics of how the engine was rigged.”

LRRI did not directly address criticism of animal cruelty in the monkey study. But Rubin stressed that all animal work conducted by Lovelace is done under the supervision of an attending veterinarian and only after an institutional Animal Care and Use Committee evaluates study objectives and testing methods to verify compliance with animal regulations.

“LRRI is committed to the humane and ethical treatment of animals involved in research,” Rubin said in the statement.

But the institute, which has conducted research with monkeys, dogs, rabbits and other animals for more than 20 years, has been criticized in the past for its management practices by some animal rights organizations, particularly by Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, a national group headquartered in Ohio.

“I’d say what happened in the exhaust study is not unusual,” said SAEN co-founder Michael Budkie.

LRRI conducts studies on respiratory illness and other diseases for many public and private entities ranging from pharmaceutical companies to the Department of Defense. It employs about 500 people at a 500,000-square-foot facility next to Kirtland Air Force Base.