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All Our Jettas

I’m a jerk about the environment. I’m a compulsive turner-off of appliances and turner-down of air conditioning and unplugger of adapters. My television and my computers are plugged into power bars that I switch off, to inconvenience my children and make my wife lose unsaved changes to her documents. I bring my own bag to the supermarket, where I don’t put my vegetables in those little green bags from the dispenser; I put them right on the filthy conveyor belt at the checkout counter. I have one of those refillable K-cups for my coffeemaker because I couldn’t stop imagining the landfills full of empties. I take my used batteries and toxic light bulbs to the recycling center. I’m not sure my Green Works laundry soap green works at all, but that’s what I use. I don’t drink bottled water and I don’t just cut up those plastic six pack handcuff rings; I have — to my children’s horror — returned hangers to the dry cleaner. Not that I go to the dry cleaners very often; I have a rack for drying clothes in the sun on my back porch, which the real estate agents next door must enjoy a lot.

I don’t eat at Burger King because of the rain forests. I don’t buy gas at 76 because of Nigeria and I didn’t buy GE products — back when GE made products — because of what they did to Rocky Flats.

In the toilets in my house — aren’t you glad I’m sharing this — we let the yellow mellow, even before California ran out of water.

I have a bucket in the shower to collect the water that runs before it heats up. We pour the water on the mellow, yellowing lawn.

I’ve spent a measurable amount of my writing life making fun of Halliburton and ExxonMobil and Todd Palin’s snowmobile for Bill Maher and Michael Moore and the NRDC and here at the Huffington Post. Basically, I’m a single-issue hippie scold, crossed with the dad in Long Day’s Journey into Night unscrewing the light bulbs in the chandelier.

And I drive a diesel Volkswagen Jetta.

So the joke’s on me.

I bought a “clean diesel” Jetta because I have to drive hundreds of miles a week for work, but I’m horrified about climate change. That was the whole reason I paid $3,000 more for a 2011 Jetta than the 2012 gasoline-fueled Jettas and Passats on the same lot.

The “clean diesel” engine wasn’t just another feature. It was why I bought the car.

I wanted to pollute less, you see.

I paid more for a used car than I could have paid for some new cars because I wanted to do the right thing.

And it looks like Volkswagen cheated me, and 482,000 other people like me, in a really wanton, deliberate and repulsive way.

It turns out, thanks to a factory-installed software defeat device, that my “clean diesel” Jetta is only clean when the EPA is testing it, and the rest of the time it’s just a plain old diesel, and it allegedly pollutes 10 to 40 times the legal limits for exhaust.

I haven’t just been defrauded and lied to. I’ve been driving a car that could be offending the principles I care about and harms me, and my family and my state.

Here’s the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment:

Diesel exhaust and many individual substances contained in it (including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and nickel) have the potential to contribute to mutations in cells that can lead to cancer. In fact, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust particles poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant evaluated by OEHHA. ARB estimates that about 70 percent of the cancer risk that the average Californian faces from breathing toxic air pollutants stems from diesel exhaust particles…

Diesel engines are a major source of fine-particle pollution. The elderly and people with emphysema, asthma, and chronic heart and lung disease are especially sensitive to fine-particle pollution. Numerous studies have linked elevated particle levels in the air to increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, asthma attacks and premature deaths among those suffering from respiratory problems. Because children’s lungs and respiratory systems are still developing, they are also more susceptible than healthy adults to fine particles. Exposure to fine particles is associated with increased frequency of childhood illnesses and can also reduce lung function in children…

Like all fuel-burning equipment, diesel engines produce nitrogen oxides, a common air pollutant in California. Nitrogen oxides can damage lung tissue, lower the body’s resistance to respiratory infection and worsen chronic lung diseases, such as asthma. They also react with other pollutants in the atmosphere to form ozone, a major component of smog.

That’s the car I’ve been driving. That’s the car Volkswagen AG deliberately lied to me about and sold me.

In the words of the great German printmaker Max Liebermann, I cannot eat as much as I want to vomit.

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