Nine-Year-Old Is First Person In UK To Have Air Pollution On Death Certificate

Heavy pollution sits over London's skyline in January 2017. Adam Cowell/Shutterstock.com

A landmark inquest has ruled that air pollution was a leading factor in the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. She becomes the first person in the UK to have air pollution officially recognized as contributing to her cause of death.

Ella, who lived in the south-east London borough of Lewisham, died on February 15, 2013, from an asthma attack. Following a 7-year fight for justice, a Southwark Coroner's Court concluded on Wednesday that air pollution "made a material contribution" to her death, BBC News reports. 

Ella, who suffered from severe asthma, lived close to London's South Circular Road, a busy road that is a notorious pollution "hotspot". The coroner stated the young girl was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM) pollution in excess of the World Health Organization and European Union guidelines, adding that failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide likely contributed to her death. They also noted that her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, was not given sufficient information about how air pollution could contribute to her daughter’s condition.

The first inquest into Ella’s death in 2014 concluded that she had died of acute respiratory failure and asthma attack with no mention of air pollution. The new inquest came after 7 years of tireless campaigning by Ella’s mother to recognize that air pollution contributed to her death. The campaign was given a significant boost in 2018 by a damning report from one of the UK's leading experts on respiratory disease and air pollution, Professor Stephen Holgate, which heavily disputed the findings of the first inquest.

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Asthma is the tightening of the airways caused by swelling in the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. The pathologist who carried out Ella’s post mortem said it was “one of the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK.” Her case was so severe in 2010 she started to experience seizures, brought on by a lack of oxygen, and was hospitalized 27 times over a 3-year period with life-threatening asthma.

Professor Holgate, who led to the 2018 report, described Ella as a “canary in a coalmine” who clearly highlighted the acute dangers of air pollution and its risk to human life. A recent report found that air pollution contributed to around 6,670,000 deaths globally in 2019, namely as a result of heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, and strokes. The bleak report also estimated that around 476,000 babies died in their first month of life due to air pollution exposure last year. 

Many are hoping that this historic ruling could be the spark needed for policymakers and industry to commit to reducing air pollution levels before more lives are unnecessarily lost. 

“Ella’s tragic death could have been avoided if irresponsible governments had not put the needs of the car industry and diesel car drivers before vulnerable children. We urgently need a new Clean Air Act, Ella’s Law, to bring down emissions of air pollutants and make air safe to breathe,” Greg Archer, UK director at Transport & Environment (T&E), said in a statement

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