VW suspends media chief amid scandal over fume tests on monkeys

The carmaker Volkswagen has suspended its head of external relations and sustainability after admitting that he had known about experiments in which monkeys were locked in small chambers and exposed to diesel exhaust.

Thomas Steg, a former government spokesman who worked for German chancellor Angela Merkel and her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, is the first person to be relieved of his duties as VW said it was “drawing the consequences” of the scandal, which has rocked both the government and industry.

The company initially tried to distance itself from the institute that commissioned the tests, the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), a car lobby group funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. But it is now known that VW managers were informed about the testing before and after it was carried out.

Steg has been pinpointed as a senior manager who knew that the experiments were going on, with internal papers seen by German media suggesting he had known about them in 2013.

He joined the company in 2012, one of many top managers to have taken a direct route from politics, in what is commonly referred to as a revolving-door policy said to highlight the mutual interests of the two worlds. Other top bosses have been trying to distance themselves from the scandal since news of it broke at the weekend.

In a statement on Tuesday, VW said: “At its meeting today, the board of management accepted the proposal made by Dr Thomas Steg, head of group external relations and sustainability, that he be suspended.

“Thomas Steg is a general representative of the Volkswagen Group and will remain suspended from his duties until these matters have been fully investigated.”

VW’s chief executive, Matthias Müller, added: “We are currently in the process of investigating the work of the EUGT, which was dissolved in 2017, and drawing all the necessary consequences.

“Mr Steg has declared that he will assume full responsibility. I respect his decision.”

Initially reported in the New York Times, the tests, carried out in May 2015 by the New Mexico-based Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI), involved locking 10 Java monkeys in small airtight chambers for four hours at a time.

The animals were left to watch cartoons as they breathed in diesel fumes from a VW Beetle. The ultimate aim of the tests was to prove that the pollutant load of nitrogen oxide car emissions from diesel motors had measurably decreased, thanks to modern cleaning technology.

It also emerged that a study in Germany measured the effects of inhaling nitrogen dioxide on 25 human volunteers.

VW is already under close scrutiny over “dieselgate”, in which the carmaker manipulated tests on about 11m cars worldwide to make it appear they met emissions tests when in reality they exceeded levels many times over when used on the road.

The scandal deepened on Tuesday amid reports that the German car industry had spent almost 10 years employing scientists to play down the health hazards of diesel fumes.

According to evidence seen by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and broadcasters NDR and WDR, the EUGT even tried to prevent the publication of a key World Health Organisation study that in 2012 declared diesel exhaust, which for years had been widely viewed as better than petrol, to be carcinogenic.

The company said on Monday a small internal group had mistakenly pushed for the animal tests to be carried out and that they did not reflect VW’s ethos. But industry observers said the excuses held little water, as the experiments had been well-documented and the results presented to managers at BMW, Daimler and VW, all of whom belonged to the EUGT, which has since been disbanded.

Daimler and BMW tried to distance themselves from the tests, stressing that none of their cars had been used. “We will investigate how this study came to pass and have started an investigation. We consider the animal experiments in the study to be superfluous and senseless,” they said in a statement.

Shortly before his suspension was announced on Tuesday, Steg told the tabloid Bild he was ashamed of the study and concerned about the damage it might do to the German car industry, which employs more than 700,000 people.

“My main concern is that the study should never have taken place with animals or with humans,” he said. “What happened, should never have happened – I regret it greatly. It has nothing to do with scientific clarification.”

The Green party has demanded time be given to debate the scandal in the Bundestag as a matter of urgency.

“We call on the German government to reveal if they already knew about the car industry’s dubious methods and to what extent public money was used to finance them,” Britta Hasselmann, leader of the party group, said.

VW added that as part of its internal investigation it would seek to “find out the fate of the Java monkeys used in the experiment, what state they were in [when the experiment was completed] and how they are doing now”.

According to billing records seen by Bild, 11 monkeys were purchased by LRRI for 3,500 euros per animal and were shipped from China. After the diesel exhaust experiments, which reportedly did not kill them, they are believed to have been used in a study on the effects of tobacco.