Pollution recorded as cause of death for first time at inquest of asthmatic girl

Pollution has been recorded as a cause of death for the first time in the UK at the inquest of a nine-year-old girl.

A coroner concluded air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah after a severe asthma attack in February 2013, in the landmark ruling.

The schoolgirl, who lived in Lewisham, South London, was rushed to hospital at 2am before she died.

Her family has long argued that pollution caused her death, and it has emerged that levels of nitrogen dioxide where she lived were unlawful.

Assistant coroner Philip Barlow gave his findings at Southwark Coroner’s Court after a two-week inquest.

Medics were unable to save Ella as she repeatedly lost consciousness, the inquest into her death heard.

Before her death, the tragic schoolgirl had suffered from seizures and made almost 30 hospital visits in three years because of her breathing difficulties.

Her heartbroken mum Rosamund Kissi-Debrah earlier told the inquest into her daughter’s death: “The only thing I could have done as her mother would have been to move.

“We literally would have just moved because we were desperate – anything that could have helped.”

She also said that while the family knew about the dangers of car fumes, they had never heard of nitrogen oxides – one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution.

The little girl lived with her mum and two younger twin siblings just 80ft from London’s inner ring-road, the heavily congested South Circular while her school was near the busy A21.

Both her home and school were inside high-risk Air Quality Management Areas (AQAM) designated by the local Lewisham Council.

A 2014 inquest ruled the youngster, from Hither Green, south east London, died of “acute respiratory failure” and concluded her death was possibly triggered by “something in the air.”

In December last year, her mum, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, won a High Court battle for another inquest to determine whether air pollution caused the child’s death.

The coroner was told that Lewisham Council identified soot as a “grave concern” in 2008 but didn’t start monitoring it in the borough for a further four years.

Giving his narrative conclusion over almost an hour, the coroner said: “I will conclude that Ella died of asthma, contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”

Giving the medical cause of death he said: “I intend to record 1a) acute respiratory failure, 1b) severe asthma 1c) air pollution exposure.”

Ella lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London – one of the capital’s busiest roads.

A 2018 report by Professor Sir Stephen Holgate found air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station one mile from where Ella lived “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death.

The fresh inquest had been listed under Article 2 – the right to life – of the Human Rights Act, which scrutinises the role of public bodies in a person’s death.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, Transport for London, the Mayor of London’s Office and Lewisham Council were all named as interested parties in Ella’s death.

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “With immediate effect the government needs to set out a health protection plan to protect us all from toxic air, with plans to train up health professionals and ensure people are getting the information they need to protect their health.”

“Our hearts go out to Ella’s family who have fought tirelessly for today’s landmark outcome.

“Ella’s legacy has firmly put the spotlight on the invisible dangers of breathing dirty air for everyone but particularly for the millions of people in the UK with asthma and other forms of lung disease, whose lives are impacted on a daily basis as a result of inadequate air quality laws and policies.

“Today’s verdict sets the precedent for a seismic shift in the pace and extent to which the government, local authorities and clinicians must now work together to tackle the country’s air pollution health crisis.”