Inquest to rule on whether air pollution led to Lewisham child’s death

Ella Kissi-Debrah died, aged nine, of acute respiratory failure in 2013.
Pic: The Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

An inquest can determine whether the Government’s inaction on air pollution contributed to the death of a nine-year-old Lewisham girl, following a provisional ruling at Southwark Coroners court. 

Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for breathing problems. Her home was just 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham.

A 2014 inquest found that the cause was acute respiratory failure and severe asthma. But after new evidence on local pollution levels came to light, that verdict was quashed and the High Court granted a new inquest, which will take place late next year.

Speaking at the pre-inquest procedural hearing, Jocelyn Cockburn, representing Kissi-Debrah, said: “Air pollution is a human rights issue and the coroner’s ruling recognises that the British public have a ‘right to life’ in terms of air pollution and that there are arguable grounds for suggesting that this was breached in Ella’s case.”

Due to the high pollution levels present in London, Transport for London (TFL) and the London mayor’s office are both named parties in the inquest proceedings. Assistant Coroner Philip Barlow told the court on Tuesday: “It does seem to me that the scope of the investigation needs to move on to look at the pollution issue.”

He provisionally rulled that a “full” inquest under article 2 – the right to life – of the Human Rights Act, which scrutinises the role of public bodies in a person’s death – should take place. Barlow outlined three broad issues for the inquest: the first being whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death, how air pollution levels were monitored and what steps were taken to reduce the pollution.

Tbe decision comes as TFL have come under additional scrutiny as a result of their support for the Silvertown Tunnel Project. The tunnel, which is designed to relieve congestion along the Blackwall tunnel, has provoked criticism from environmental scientists and campaigners account of its likely impact on air pollution levels in the surrounding areas of East and South East London. 

In August 2019, Ella Kissi-Debrah’s mother Rosamund, was a signatory to an open letter calling on Mayor Sadiq Khan to rethink the Silvertown Tunnel. 
At present, Tower Hamlets are the only affected council to back TFL’s plans. Lewisham, where Ella lived just 25 metres from the South Circular, have repeatedly expressed opposition to the tunnel’s construction.

Jenny Bates, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told EastLondonLines: “Tower Hamlets’s support for the 4-lane Silvertown road tunnel is very disappointing and seriously at odds with key ambitions to help improve air pollution for local people and to try to avert the worst of climate breakdown.” The Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs has defended support for the Tunnel and argued that it would help reduce pollution,

Dr Ian Mudway, a senior lecturer at the School of Population Health and Environmental Sciences at King’s College London, believes that this inquest could have a longstanding impact on the way that the legal system deals with deaths like Kissi-Debrah.

“Illegal levels of air pollution can be found across large areas of Central London but if the inquest rules that Ella was killed by air pollution then it would have an enormous impact on the way politicians address [the issue],” said Dr Mudway. Ultimately, Mudway believes, “the only deal in town is to place severe restrictions on motor vehicle use in London. It’s time to take our city back for the people not for the motorists.”

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