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How bad is air pollution in the UK? The case of Ella Kissi-Debrah

A new inquest is investigating whether poor air quality contributed towards the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in London in 2013
Smog over London in 2012, the year before Ella died. Image credit: Shirokazan/Flickr

A nine-year-old girl could become the first person in the UK – and possibly the world – to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. 

If a new inquest finds that poor air quality contributed towards the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, it has the potential to create significant change in how authorities are held accountable over the quality of the air we breathe.          

As the landmark case gets underway, we look at the extent of the pollution problem, how it impacts health and what can be done to solve it.      

What happened to Ella Kissi-Debrah? 

Ella – described as ”the life and soul” of the family home – died on 15 February 2013 after a severe asthma attack.

The nine-year-old – who lived just a few dozen metres from one of London’s most congested roads in Lewisham – had been hospitalised nearly 30 times with respiratory illnesses over the course of a three-year period.

Her mother, Rosamund, has fought a tireless campaign to highlight the role she believes air quality played in her daughter’s death.

A school photo of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah
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Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at school. Image credit: Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah

The first inquest made no reference to air pollution but the verdict was subsequently quashed after family lawyers presented evidence mapping Ella’s admissions to hospitals with spikes in air pollution around her home.

If the coroner decides that air pollution led to the acute asthma attack that killed Ella, it would make legal history as the first ruling of its kind, potentially anywhere in the world. 

In a statement to The Big Issue ahead of the start of the hearing, Rosamund said: “Life has changed and it will always be hard, but what will never change is how much we love Ella. She might not be here, but my love for her has never lessened and I will fight for her and for justice for her as long as I can, and in every way I can.”

Jocelyn Cockburn, the family’s lawyer, added: “It has been a significant achievement getting to this point.

“The coroner will consider if Ella’s death could have been avoided and if lessons need to be learned to avoid future deaths”. 

Just how bad is air pollution in the UK? 

Air quality is an increasing problem – and rapidly being viewed as a public health emergency.

Around 15 million people – almost a quarter of people in the UK – are said to be exposed to dangerous air pollution, and the UK government has been repeatedly admonished in legal challenges over the failure to reduce harmful levels. 

High levels of pollution have been linked to various health ailments, including heart disease and lung problems, with the Royal College of Physicians estimating that dirty air contributes to as many as 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK.

“This is a growing and critical health crisis,” Geraint Davies, Labour MP and chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution, told the Big Issue, as he called for greater urgency to “save tens of thousands of lives”.

“Most recently we have seen evidence of the impact on unborn babies, the impact of the mental health of children, their concentration in school, as well as depression and anxiety”.

He urged the government to stop “dragging its heels” on its post-Brexit environmental commitments and set legally-binding air quality targets to guarantee the UK is seen as the “green light of the future” instead of a “diesel dumping ground”.

What impact has coronavirus had on air pollution in the UK? 

The coronavirus pandemic has also brought sharp focus to the issue – not just for the grim but unsurprising link between poor air quality and higher risk of death from Covid-19, but the realisation of the relief cleaner air can bring. 

Jemima Hartshorn, founder of campaign group Mums for Lungs, said she had been inundated with tales of improved health and wellbeing. 

“In the last lockdown, when suddenly cars were massively reduced on roads, lots of people got in touch and said, ‘You know what, I’ve been having migraines every few weeks and suddenly they are gone’, or others said ‘I thought asthma was part of my life but I no longer needed my inhaler’”. 

She is now urging the government to ensure traffic does not return to pre-pandemic levels and to commit to a public awareness campaign, with the same vigour as those highlighting the dangers of cigarettes or promoting road safety. 

“We cannot afford a car-based recovery for the sake of all our children, everyone who is vulnerable and for the sake of the planet.”

What is the UK doing about air pollution?

Boris Johnson has promised a “green industrial revolution” to tackle the climate crisis and improve air quality, which includes banning wholly petrol and diesel vehicle sales by 2030. 

But the government has been urged to be bolder in its approach, with campaigners seeking specific and legally-binding targets on improving air quality in its new Environmental Bill.

A government spokesperson said: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. But we know there is more to do, which is why we are taking urgent action to curb the impact air pollution has on communities across England through the delivery of our £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution. 

“Through our landmark Environment Bill, we have committed to set an ambitious target on PM2.5 alongside a long-term target on air quality. The Prime Minister’s ambitious 10 Point Plan for the environment will see investment in zero-emission public transport, a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030, and the transformation of our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.”