Campaigners urge action after a coroner rules air pollution contributed to her daughter’s death

Ella Kissi-Debrah’s mother calls for Clean Air Act in wake of landmark ruling

The mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah called for her legacy to be the passing of a new clean air act to force the government in the UK to clean up the environment for future generations of children.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah spoke after a coroner ruled that illegal levels of air pollution, predominantly from traffic, had caused the death of her nine year old daughter in south London in February 2013.

The coroner’s ruling was the first in the world – experts believe – to identify air pollution as a cause of an individual’s death. In a landmark narrative verdict, Philip Barlow, inner south London coroner, said Ella died from acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure.

He ruled that the “recognised failure” of government and other bodies, to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels or to provide information to the public about their risks, was a possible contribution to the schoolgirl’s death.

“Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution,” said the coroner on Wednesday.

Ella lived within 25 metres of the south circular road in Lewisham, and other busy routes. During her lifetime nitrogen dioxide emissions in Lewisham, where she lived, exceeded EU and national legal limits and World Health Organization guidelines. Particulate matter (PM), PMs 10 and 2.5, levels were above the WHO guidelines. In the three years before her death, Ella had multiple seizures and was admitted to hospital 27 times after severe asthma attacks.

“The whole of Ella’s life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads,” the coroner said. “I have no difficulty in concluding that her personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and PM was very high.” Air pollution he said had induced and exacerbated her severe asthma.

Seven years on from Ella’s death, nitrogen dioxide emissions met legal limits across the borough for the first time last year, but particulate pollution continued to exceed World Health Organization limits.

The inquest was the second into Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death. The first hearing in 2014 did not consider air pollution as a cause of death. But her mother fought to find the truth about what was causing her daughter’s acute asthma attacks, collapses and respiratory and cardiac arrests.

She forced a second inquest after her lawyer presented new evidence from Prof Stephen Holgate, a world expert, which found that air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station a mile from her home consistently exceeded lawful EU and national legal limits.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said after the ruling: “We’ve got the justice for her which she so deserved”.

She said she needed time to reflect on the ruling. “I think that it would be a fitting legacy, 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.

“My biggest desire is to prevent future deaths, anything that saves future lives I am going to be in support of.”

Kissi-Debrah said rather than a blame game, there needed to be a public awareness campaign with clear, concise, messages to teach the population about the damage air pollution is doing.

Environmental lawyers, and campaigners joined the call for a radical and broad focused new clean air act – akin to the one introduced after the Great Smog in the 1950s, to be passed.

Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London, said: “It is the duty of the government to protect life and the environment for current and future generations and to do this they need a new Clean Air Act which will deal with present pollution and clean up the environment for future generations.”

Illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide should have been reduced in the UK and Europe by 2010, but the latest data shows 75% of air quality reporting zones in the UK are still breaching legal limits, and levels across the continent are also still unlawful.

The Government recently threw out an attempt to get tougher WHO limits on PM pollutants into the environment bill, with Rebecca Pow, air quality minister, questioning the “economic viability and practical deliverability’ of the stricter target.

“In the seven years since Ella died, nearly a quarter of a million other UK families have suffered tragedy as a result of vulnerable loved-ones breathing toxic air – four times more than those killed by Covid this year,” said Greg Archer, of the NGO Transport & Environment. “In modern Britain this is inexcusable and preventable.”

The failure of successive governments to meet legal limits led ClientEarth, the environmental legal group, to successfully taken the UK government to court three times.

Katie Neild, UK clean air lawyer for Client Earth, said: “The inquest has thrown into sharp relief just how long the government has known about the harm that air pollution wreaks on people’s lives and how slow they have been to react. How many more lives will be lost before ministers act to clean up the air with the urgency and ambition that people’s health deserves?”

Jocelyn Cockburn, the human rights lawyer who represented Ella’s family, said under article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life, there was a compulsion on the government to act or take reasonable steps to protect life.

“I think it entirely possible in relation to those people who have been affected by air pollution that they could use the Human Rights Act to try and enforce their right to breathe clean air … and there may be other legal avenues in relation to forcing the government to take steps to reduce air pollution levels or to inform the public.”

Responding to the verdict, a government spokesman said: “Our thoughts remain with Ella’s family and friends.

“We are delivering a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and going further in protecting communities from air pollution.”