Air pollution ‘materially contributed’ to Lewisham girl’s death, coroner rules in landmark case

Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013. Pic: The Ella Roberta Family Foundation

Illegal levels of air pollution caused the death of a nine-year-old girl from Lewisham in 2013, a coroner ruled today in a landmark case.

Coroner Philip Barlow said that air pollution caused Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death in February 2013 from a severe asthma attack. Air pollution has never been identified as a cause of death before in the UK.

After the inquest, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother, told reporters: “Yes, this was about my daughter, getting air pollution on the death certificate which we finally have, and we’ve got the justice for her which she so deserved.

“But also it’s about other children still, as we walk around our city of high levels of air pollution… there are still illegal levels of air pollution now, as we speak, so this matter is far from over.”

The coroner ruled Ella’s mother was not given information on the health risks of air pollution that could have helped prevent Ella’s death, but Kissi-Debrah said she was “not going to sit here now and regret things that have gone on”.

She said: “When you balance it out, yes the information should have been there, it wasn’t, but maybe we can make sure the information is there for the future.”

“I would rather, going forward, we do a public awareness campaign, teach the population about the damage air pollution is doing, rather than a blame game.”

“[Ella’s] legacy would be to bring in a new Clean Air Act and for governments – I’m not just talking about the UK government – governments around the world to take this matter seriously,” she said.

Ella’s inquest was set in motion after an independent report found a ‘striking association’ between Ella’s hospital admissions and spikes of nitrogen dioxide and PM10 levels – the most severe polluters. 

Paul Wilkinson, professor of environmental epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, had told the inquest there was no evidence of a link between increased air pollution and Ella’s repeated hospital admissions for severe asthma attacks. But the cumulative impact of the pollution was enough to eventually cause Ella’s death, the coroner decided, giving a reserved judgement after the inquest at Southwark Coroners Court.

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.

The Government had known for years that nitrogen dioxide levels in London were exceeding legal limits and created an associated risk to health, the hearing was also told.

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.

Nine-year-old Ella died in February 2013 from a fatal asthma attack. She lived within 25 meters of 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.

Kissi-Debrah had campaigned for the inquest which 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 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.

Kissi-Debrah said last Monday that people still do not understand the dangers of air pollution. She described her daughter Ella as “a joy” and “the centre of our world”.  She said environmentalists understood the problems of air pollution but among the general population, “there’s a lot of education to be had.” She is now aware of the many air pollution monitoring websites, but believes most parents are not. “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 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.”

Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah

Kissi-Debrah lives in London on the South Circular Road. She worked as a secondary school teacher at Blackheath Bluecoat Church of England School in Greenwich before it closed in 2014. She has campaigned for clean air following daughter Ella’s death in 2013. After learning about the possible adverse effects of air pollution on Ella’s health, Kissi-Debrah has campaigned for air pollution to be included on Ella’s death certificate. Kissi-Debrah also co-founded the Ella Roberta Family Foundation, a charity aiming to improve the lives of children affected by asthma in South East London. She was a Green Party candidate in the 2019 UK general election. In November this year, she was included in the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power list 2020.

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