Illegal levels of air pollution contributed to the death of a nine-year-old girl, a court found today.
Inner South London Coroner Philip Barlow ruled Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death in February 2013 was caused by a severe asthma attack and acute respiratory failure, exacerbated by air pollution exposure. This is the first time air pollution has been identified as a cause of death in the UK.
Ella’s family lived within 25 meters of the busy South Circular road in Lewisham, a route Ella also often walked to school amid air pollution levels exceeding the legal limit. She was admitted to hospital 27 times in the three years before her death.
The inquest was set in motion after a report found a “striking association” between Ella’s hospital admissions and spikes of nitrogen dioxide and PM10 particulate matter levels – the most severe polluters.
‘Canary in a coalmine’
Author of the report, Professor Stephen Holgate, compared Ella to a “canary in a coalmine” and said she was “living on a knife edge”.
The inquest heard that Lewisham failed to treat illegal levels of air pollution in the area where Ella lived and died as a public health emergency.
For years, the Government had been aware of nitrogen dioxide levels in London exceeding legal limits and the polluter’s associated risk to health, Southwark Coroner’s Court heard.
Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, said she was pleased that after years of campaigning, the inquest would finally raise awareness of the dangers of air pollution.
The landmark ruling comes six years after an inquest ruled that Ella had died of acute respiratory failure. This was rejected by the High Court following new evidence about the dangerous levels of air pollution close to her home, identified in a 2016 report by Holgate, a Professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton.
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Kissi-Debrah said “moving would have been the first thing” the family would have done if they had known the risks air pollution posed to Ella.
Her daughter Ella was “a joy” and “the centre of our world”, she told the inquest.
She said environmentalists understood the problems of air pollution but among the general population “there’s a lot of education to be had”. She added: “There are 1.1 million children with asthma in this country, I am not convinced that if you did a survey with most of the parents that they would know about these [air monitoring] websites.”
Measures introduced to improve air quality would have been too slow to help her daughter, Kissi-Debrah added. “People look at things in the long term, so they make decisions and say things like ‘this will improve the air in about six or 12 months,’” she said.
“What they do not realise is that if you have someone who is severely asthmatic, they do not have the time to wait.”
The inquest took place under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life, which scrutinises the role of public bodies, such as local authorities, in a person’s death.
It comes months after DeSmog revealed lobby groups backed by big brands, such as DHL, are resisting clean air measures across the UK.
In 2016, a landmark report jointly published in 2016 by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found poor air quality could be contributing to as many as 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK and causing more than £20 billion in annual costs.
Main image credit: Ella Roberta Family Foundation