A Landmark Ruling is Confirming What We Already Knew About Air Pollution
In my days of commuting it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to blow my nose and see black dust left behind. After the first couple of times, I have to admit that I was no longer phased. Living in London, my daily routine included walking by busy roads and taking the underground several times a day — air pollution was an unavoidable part of my life.
Like many people, I understand that air pollution is ‘bad for us’, but the extent of its toxicity is often understated. We take breathing (somewhat) clean air for granted, and its stories like Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s which reveal the severity of the issue.
Ella lived with her family near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, a borough in the south-east of London. An area with unlawfully high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which between 2006 and 2010 exceeded both the World Health Organization and the European Union’s recommended guidelines.
Ella, like many people, had asthma and over the span of three years, she had multiple seizures and was admitted to the hospital 27 times. On five occasions, her lungs fully or partially collapsed, and her rare form of asthma would cause her lunges to be filled with fluid. In February 2013, Ella died from a cardiac arrest following an asthma attack, she was 9 years old.
Ella’s death left a lot of questions for her friends and family, particularly her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who spent years fighting to have a second coroner examine her daughter’s death. The Ella Roberta Family Foundation was set up in Ella’s memory to raise awareness and research on the dangers of asthma. In 2018, Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, a leading researcher of the impacts of air pollution on human health, wrote a report that linked her death to the air pollution levels in the area that she lived in.
On Wednesday 16 December 2020, following a two week inquest, the Southwark Coroner’s Court concluded that dangerous levels of air pollution contributed to Ella’s death. Coroner Philip Barlow said Ella had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution and stated that “there was a recognised failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide […] which possibly contributed to her death”.
This is the first time in the UK that air pollution is recorded on a death certificate as a cause in an individual’s death.
It is estimated that in the UK between 28,000 and 36,000 people die every year due to toxic air pollution. Up until now, the full truth about the impact of air pollution has not been fully brought to the public’s attention, but this ruling leaves no room for those with the power and responsibility to make a difference to claim ignorance.
Education around the impact of air pollution has also been lacking, and those most at risk are often the most ignorant about the pollution they encounter on a regular basis. The inquest found: “Ella’s mother was not given information about the health risks of air pollution and its potential to exacerbate asthma. If she had been given this information she would have taken steps which might have prevented Ella’s death.” People do the best they can with the information they have, and not providing the information gives people no chance at all.
I have previously written about how poor communities and communities of colour are more likely to be exposed to pollution, and the marginalisation and silencing of these communities continues to have a fatal affect, especially in a world with covid-19. There are many systems that have failed people like Ella, from politicians, to lobbyists and vehicle manufacturers who have been slow or even against the imposition of air pollution regulations.
Ella, and the thousands of other people whose death is likely linked to air pollution, deserve better. Having cleaner air for our health is often seen as a being a bonus side effect of implementing eco-friendly systems for the sake of climate change. But taking action against climate change also greatly benefits the health of our communities, and toxic air pollution needs to be addressed as a public health priority.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah gave an interview to New Scientist and she shared how she would like Ella to be remembered:
“I would want her to be remembered for how funny she was. How caring she was — she was always bothered about other people, she would help someone to read in her class. She loved her friends, she was incredibly loyal. How bright she was. Her sense of duty, she went to Beavers Cubs, wanted to go to Air Cadets. Also, a very serious side to her. She used to play chess. She used to laugh, and that smile. To remember her as a happy child. As I said to her, sometimes bad things happen to good people.”