German prosecutors have opened an investigation into former Volkswagen AG Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn. Above, Volkswagen hood mask are seen in this illustration in second-hand car parts in Jelah, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 26, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Volkswagen's pollution-control deception wasn’t victimless trickery; it likely killed from five to 20 people a year in the United States in recent years, according to a statistical analysis by the Associated Press. Software that the company admitted it programmed to get around government emissions limits allowed VW diesel cars to spew enough pollution to cause up to 94 U.S. deaths over the last seven years, the AP reported Saturday.

The death toll is likely much higher in Europe, where more of the German automaker’s cars were sold, said engineers who helped conduct the AP’s analysis. Although it’s difficult to translate American health and air quality analysis to a more densely populated Europe, scientists and experts said the death toll there could be as much as hundreds per year.

"Statistically, we can't point out who died because of [VW’s] policy, but some people have died or likely died as a result of this," Peter Adams, an environmental engineer professor at Carnegie Mellon, told the AP. Adams’ computerized analysis estimated a $100 million cost for the U.S. deaths, at $8.6 million per death.

Computer software in the VW diesel cars allowed them to emit from 10 to 40 times more nitrogen oxides than allowed by U.S. regulations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which revealed the scandal in September. Martin Winterkorn resigned as Volkswagen Group's CEO on Sept. 23, after almost nine years at the helm of Europe’s largest automaker. Matthias Müller, the former chief executive of VW group’s Porsche, announced Sept. 29 a plan to refit millions of cars that are equipped with devices that help them cheat the U.S. emissions tests.

Nitrogen oxides form murky, dirty air that makes it hard to see and breathe. Most alarmingly, tiny particles of soot found in the dirty air cause about 50,000 heart-related deaths each year in the U.S., according to the AP.

To claim that millions of people are breathing poorer-quality air as a result of the VW emissions deception would not be an exaggeration, said Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston. "Even the small increase in [nitrogen oxide] from VW diesel emissions is likely to have worsened pollution along the roadways where they have traveled, and affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people," Greenbaum told the AP.

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