• For Ella: New Regulation on Horizon for Air Pollution in UK

Air Monitoring

For Ella: New Regulation on Horizon for Air Pollution in UK

Mar 04 2023

A nine-year-old girl named Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, died in 2013 following a severe asthma attack. Now, Ella has become the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. At the conclusion of the two-week inquest, coroner Philip Barlow found that air pollution "made a material contribution" to Ella's death. The inquest heard that Ella had been exposed to "excessive" levels of pollution, and levels of nitrogen oxides (NOX) near her home exceeded World Health Organization and European Union guidelines. Ella's family did not know of the risks posed by air pollution, and there was a recognized failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which possibly contributed to her death. 

This landmark decision has been praised by experts, campaigners, and politicians. Prof Gavin Shaddick, a government adviser on air pollution, called it "a landmark decision," while Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, called on the government to outline a public health plan to protect against "toxic air" immediately. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was named as an interested party in the inquest and called the result "a landmark moment," adding that "today must be a turning point so that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella's family." 

Ella's mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, said that they have finally achieved justice for Ella, but it's also about other children as well. She expressed shock at how "decisive and comprehensive" the findings were. Prior to Ella's death, she had multiple seizures and was admitted to the hospital 27 times in the three years before her death. By the summer of 2012, Ella was classified as disabled, and her mother had to carry her by piggyback to get her around. 

The inquest heard that unlawful levels of pollution, which were detected at a monitoring station one mile from Ella's home, contributed to her fatal asthma attack. Gas boilers, construction equipment, paint, and dust from brakes and tires all contribute to air pollution, making it impossible to completely clean the air in some of the UK's big cities. 

Experts typically refer to air pollution being "associated" with premature deaths because they can't be sure any one individual's death was caused or partly caused by dirty air. However, this case pins Ella's untimely death partly on the air she breathed. The verdict has set a precedent for a seismic shift in the pace and extent to which the government, local authorities, and clinicians must now work together to tackle the country's air pollution health crisis. 

In response to the verdict, a government spokesman said, "We are delivering a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and going further in protecting communities from air pollution." Campaigners are calling for emergency action, including expanding London's clean-air zone for vehicles out to the M25 and making Britain's streets better for walking and cycling. The hope is that today's ruling is the evidence needed to effect lasting change, to finally secure a national commitment to tackling air pollution in a meaningful way. 

When Rosamund Kissi-Debrah lost her daughter, she become a passionate advocate for cleaner air. She is a driving force behind what she calls "Ella's Law" in the UK parliament, the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, which would make clean air a human right and set a 2030 deadline for compliance with key pollution standards. She hopes that the law will help to reduce the number of annual deaths of between 8 and 12 children due to asthma in London. Kissi-Debrah has also become a WHO advocate and just last month, was made CBE in recognition of her work.  

Kissi-Debrah said that nothing could make up for her daughter's death, but she has to believe things will get better. She hopes that by holding politicians to account, they can mobilise people and make a positive change. Much of her focus is currently on Ella's law, which is due to have its second reading in the Commons this month. Kissi-Debrah wrote to the prime minister in October, telling him that children will continue to die unless the government takes action on air pollution. 

Even if Ella's Law passes, Kissi-Debrah does not expect to stop there, as she says there is work to be done across the world. Kissi-Debrah is not a supporter of low-traffic neighbourhoods, which exclude motor traffic from some roads, as she believes they increase traffic on arterial roads. Instead, she backs investing in public transport and making it cleaner and cheaper. She also says wood-burning in homes in the city is terrible.

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