For the first time in British legal history, air pollution was confirmed on Wednesday as the cause of the death of a London girl in 2013 in a widely followed case, whose outcome is now expected to lead to new measures to curb pollution in the capital.
Ella Kissi-Debrah, 9, and her family lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, where levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution from traffic constantly exceeded the annual legal limit of 40µg/m3 between 2006 and 2010. She would walk along the road to and from school.
Philip Barlow, inner south London coroner, said Kissi-Debrah’s death was caused by acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure: “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”
“There was a recognised failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide, which possibly contributed to her death. There was also a lack of information given to Ella’s mother that possibly contributed to her death,” he added.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, mother of the deceased, mounted a legal challenge, arguing that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that there were failures by the state to take steps to protect the public from dangerous levels of air pollution, which amounted to a violation of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life.
The family’s lawyers told the court that air pollution was a public health emergency and there was a pressing need for it to be recorded as a cause of death to ensure public health programmes to tackle toxic air are prioritised.
Stephen Holgate, an immunopharmacologist at the University of Southampton and Southampton general hospital, told the court that a biological cause of her disease getting worse in the winter months was the seasonal worsening of air pollution.
He said it was the cumulative effects of the toxic air Ella was breathing in living within 30 metres of the South Circular road that caused her final acute asthma attack. In the three years before her death, she had multiple seizures and was admitted to hospital 27 times.