Coroner Rules That Air Pollution Caused Death Of London Schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah

Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack following "one of the worst air pollution surges" on record in Lewisham.

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In 2013, Ella Kissi-Debrah was just 9 years old when she suddenly passed away having suffered an acute asthma attack. More than seven years on, a landmark inquest was launched to understand if "illegal levels" of air pollution was the cause of her death. On Dec. 16, a South London coroner made legal history when he confirmed air pollution was a factor in the schoolgirl’s passing. Ella's case, which highlights the dangers of toxic air, is considered the first of its kind in the world.

What Did The Coroner Say?

On Nov. 30, an inquest examined evidence that linked Ella's severe asthma to "one of the worst air pollution surges" in her area of Lewisham, South London, and the heavy traffic in London's South Circular near her home. Per the Guardian, the coroner was asked to rule "that toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide" eventually killed the London pupil. This had never been done before.

On Weds, Dec. 15, Inner South London coroner Philip Barlow confirmed that Ella’s acute asthma was contributed to “by exposure to excessive air pollution.” Per the Guardian, he ruled that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) near Ella's home exceeded World Health Organization and European Union guidelines. As a result, Ella died of “acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure.”

“The whole of Ella’s life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads,” Barlow stated. “I have no difficulty in concluding that her personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and PM was very high.

"There was a recognised failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide, which possibly contributed to her death."

What Has Ella's Family Said?

The inquest followed tireless work from Ella's mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who had petitioned for years for it to go ahead. Following the coroner's ruling, she said was happy to finally have “justice” close to eight years after her daughter’s death.

"We've got the justice for her which she so deserved,” she said, via BBC News. "But also it's about other children still, as we walk around our city with high levels of air pollution."

Previously, Rosamund had spoken of the “long, hard fight”she had fought to be heard. Ella had been admitted to hospital close to 30 times in the three years before she died. At the age of six, she was placed in a medically-induced coma for three days to stabilise her condition. By 2012, Ella’s asthma was so severe she deemed disabled.

"I think people need to understand when Ella was rushed into hospital, a lot of the time she was barely breathing,” said Kissi-Debrah, via BBC News. "It was an emergency, cardiac arrest."

What Happened With The Initial Inquest?

In 2014, an initial inquest had ruled that Ella passed away due to acute respiratory failure caused by severe asthma — however air pollution wasn't listed as a factor. Following new evidence provided by an air pollution expert, this verdict was abandoned in 2019.

With the help of Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, Ella's family was able to link her hospital admissions with air pollution spikes in her area.

"The dramatic worsening of her asthma in relation to air pollution episodes would go a long way to explain the timing of her exacerbations across her last four years," Holgate wrote in a report he made about Ella's death. "There is a real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died."

How Has The Government Responded To The Coroner's Ruling?

Mayor Of London Sadiq Khan has responded to the “landmark” ruling, also acknowledging the relentless work of Ella’s mother, Rosamund.

“Today must be a turning point so that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella’s family,” he said in a statement. “Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children, and the inquest underlined yet again the importance of pushing ahead with bold policies such as expanding the ultra low emission zone to inner London.

“Ministers and the previous mayor have acted too slowly in the past, but they must now learn the lessons from the coroner’s ruling and do much more to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution in London and across the country.”

A spokesperson for No. 10 has revealed the UK’s plans to tackle NO2 pollution in the country.

“Thoughts remain with Ella’s family and friends,” said the spokesperson.

“We are delivering a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution, and going further in protecting communities from air pollution, particularly PM2.5 pollution, which we know is particularly harmful to people’s health,” they added. “Through our landmark environment bill, we are also setting ambitious new air-quality targets, with a primary focus on reducing public health impacts.”

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