Did air pollution kill Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah?

Defra’s latest figures estimate there are 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year because of air pollution
A second inquest scrutinising the role of air pollution in the death of a nine-year old from Lewisham in London begins today.

Exposure to toxic air can cause an immediate flare up of existing symptoms with potentially devastating consequences. 

Evidence on the extent to which air pollution led to the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013 of a severe asthma attack, will be heard by a coroner in a two-week hearing starting today.

Adoo-Kissi-Debrah lived 25-30m from the South Circular Road and had been suffering from three years of seizures and had been admitted to hospital over 30 times with her asthma.

A first inquest in 2014 ruled that Ella died of acute respiratory failure caused by severe asthma. This was quashed in 2019 and a new inquest ordered after new evidence into the risks of air pollution was revealed in a 2018 report by expert professor Sir Stephen Holgate.

Causative factor

The new hearing will consider levels of air pollution to which Ella was exposed from nearby busy roads and investigate whether this was a causative factor in her death.

It will also scrutinise how air pollution levels were monitored at the time; the steps taken to reduce air pollution; and the information that was provided to the public about the level of pollution, its dangers, and ways to reduce exposure.

Should the Coroner rule that air pollution directly caused Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death, it will be the first ruling of its kind.

She could be the first person in the UK - and possibly world - to have air pollution listed on her death certificate as cause of death, according to Hodge Jones and Allen Solicitors, who are representing Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s mother Rosamund.

New laws

Separately, new polling by YouGov showed that 54 percent of over 2,000 adults supported strengthening air pollution laws in line with the World Health Organization guidelines for toxic air pollutants.

The public supported the measures even if it means placing restrictions on drivers: 59 percent wanted more regional bus and train routes and 57 percent supported government investment in cycling and walking.

Lawyers ClientEarth, who have successfully taken the government to court over its inaction on air pollution, want the government to take heed of the inquest, and to commit in the Environment Bill to a legally binding target to achieve World Health Organization guideline levels for harmful particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the latest.

Harriet Edwards is a senior policy and project manager for Air quality at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation.

She said: “Air pollution is bad for everybody’s health, but for the one in five people in the UK with existing lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exposure to toxic air can cause an immediate flare up of existing symptoms with potentially devastating consequences.”

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

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