A coroner has ruled that the death of a girl in London in 2013 should be attributed to air pollution following years of campaigning by her family. Ella Kissi-Debrah died of an asthma attack in February 2013, aged nine, in Lewisham in South London, an area where nitrogen dioxide levels regularly exceeded the legal limits set by both the UK and EU, and particulate matter levels regularly exceeded the maximum levels in World Health Organisation guidelines, with the situation being particularly severe in winter.
Between 28 000 and 36 000 people are estimated to die prematurely as a result of air pollution in the UK each year, but this is the first time that a UK coroner has directly attributed a death to the problem. The ruling, made by Philip Barlow, coroner for Inner London South, on Wednesday 16 December 2020, follows years of campaigning by Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, and evidence provided by immunopharmacologist and consultant respiratory physician Stephen Holgate of the University of Southampton and Southampton General Hospital.
An initial inquest in 2014 ruled that Ella Kissi-Debrah died of acute respiratory failure, but took no view on the cause of this. In the three years prior to her attacks Ella suffered numerous severe asthma attacks; she was hospitalised almost 30 times, and suffered collapsed lungs in five occasions. This week Stephen Holgate presented evidence that her attacks bore no relationship to seasonal pollen production, the most common cause of asthma attacks in the UK, but instead were most severe in winter, when pollution was the most severe.
While presenting his evidence, Holbrook was highly critical of the UK government for its failure to tackle air pollution, noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and Social Care did not work together to address the issue, and that a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which Holbrook took part in, was closed down in 2011.
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