Tragic British case ‘makes clear the need for Clean Air Act’

An inquest in London has recorded what is believed to be the world’s first case of air pollution being given as a direct cause of death. Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who lived close to a busy urban road, died after a series of severe asthma attacks. T&E said the landmark ruling should trigger more serious action to combat air pollution through a new Clean Air Act.

  © Copyright Robin Stott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

T&E’s UK director, Greg Archer, who gave evidence to the inquest as an expert witness, said: “Governments across Europe knew in the mid-2000s that diesel car emissions controls were failing, but took no action to reduce dirty diesel sales nor to reduce traffic. As a result, legally binding air pollution limits were missed and vulnerable children, like Ella, became victims. These air pollution limits continue to be missed in cities throughout Europe leading to more than 500,000 people dying prematurely across the continent.”

Ambient air pollution is responsible for 4.2 million deaths per year, the World Health Organisation estimates, due to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases. But until now, it has only been possible to make a statistical association rather than to attribute individual deaths. 

The London inquest heard that Ella was a lively and sporty child, but from the age of six she developed asthma, and the last two years of her life were inhibited by persistent asthma attacks. As she had grown up just 25 metres from the South Circular Road, one of London’s busiest roads, the immunologist who examined her death focused on air pollution when it became clear that the girl’s asthma attacks coincided with rising pollution in the winter months. The coroner, Philip Barlow, said air pollution, principally from nearby car traffic, was a “significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of her asthma.” He described it as “one of the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK”.

Greg Archer said: “It’s time to rethink the way we are tackling air pollution. City smogs ended when burning coal was banned in urban areas; lead pollution was fixed by removing lead from petrol; and ozone depletion by banning CFCs. We must now move to end the use of vehicles with engines in our cities, muck spreading on fields and back garden bonfires. Banning the major sources of air pollution, through a new Clean Air Act, as we did in the past, is the fastest way to clean up the air.”

T&E proposes an ‘Ella’s Law’ which would help to protect future vulnerable children and reduce the hidden personal tragedies that this inquest has exposed.

Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah has been widely praised for her fight to recognise air pollution. Ella died in 2013, and the original inquest in 2014 simply said she died from respiratory failure. Kissi-Debrah pushed for a second inquest, which led to last month’s historic ruling.