Lewisham failed to treat air pollution as ‘public health emergency’ inquest told

Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013. Pic: The Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

Lewisham failed to prioritise air pollution and treat it as ‘a public health emergency’, barrister for the family of Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi-Debrahn argued on the first day of an inquest into the death of the nine-year-old.

It took the council seven years to conduct the first strategic needs assessment on air pollution, the court heard on Monday. Richard Hermer QC, representing Ella’s family, called it a “glacial pace”.

During the 10-day landmark case a coroner will assess whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death in February 2013. It has never previously been identified as a cause of death in the UK.

Philip Barlow, assistant coroner for Inner South London leading the hearing at Southwark Coroner’s Court, said the inquest would examine air pollution as a cause of Ella’s death.

It will also explore how pollution levels were monitored at the time, and assess the steps taken to reduce air pollution and to inform the public about its level, the dangers to ones’ health and ways to reduce exposure.

Nine-year-old Ella died in February 2013, with a fatal asthma attack listed as the cause of death. She lived within 25 meters from the busy South Circular road in Lewisham, a route she also often walked to school. The road had levels of air pollution exceeding the legal limit. She was admitted to the hospital 27 times between 2010 and 2013.
Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, campaigned for an inquest. This was granted after a report by Professor Stephen Holgate, one of the UK’s leading experts on asthma and air, found a ‘striking association’ between Ella’s hospital admissions and spikes of nitrogen dioxide and PM10 levels – the most severe polluters. The inquest takes 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.

“Glacial pace”

Hermer accused the council of failing to treat air pollution as a priority, despite their knowledge of how dangerous it is to people’s health.

David Edwards, Lewisham’s head of environmental health, told the hearing that the borough struggled with air pollution caused by transient traffic on its major roads as its biggest air polluter.

But Lewisham, as the local authority, had no control over these transient vehicles. “In terms of traffic, we have very limited powers, especially [in the period leading up to Ella’s death].”

Major London roads, such as the South Circular and A21 in Lewisham which are of importance to the inquest, are usually under control of Transport for London.


“All [the council] can do to tackle air pollution is encourage people to use other forms of transport and inform them on the risks it poses on their health,” said Edwards.

Philip Graham, executive director for good growth at Greater London Authority told the hearing: “The borough has limited tools, but so do TfL and the national government. We’re only able to reach air quality targets with all these levels working together. Everyone plays a role. The local borough cannot achieve this by themselves, but they’re certainly not irrelevant.”


Edwards confirmed the council has been aware of the dangers of Lewisham’s high levels of air pollution between 2010 and 2013, the years preceding Ella’s death. In 2008, a House of Commons select committee had already expressed concerns on the levels exceeding the permitted limits.

Lewisham introduced Airtext in 2010, a service sending out texts when residents were exposed to high levels of air pollution. They also organised awareness events at schools.

But Hermer told the court that awareness workshops were only given at five schools, a fraction of Lewisham’s 38 primary and 14 secondary schools. He said this did not show that the council was prioritising air pollution as it should have done.

The inquest will continue tomorrow.

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