Air pollution stated as cause of 9-year-old’s death in landmark UK ruling

In a first of its kind ruling, air pollution was declared to be the cause of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death in 2013 by a coroner.

The initial investigation, which was conducted in 2014, had no mention of air pollution. The cause of death was deduced to be acute respiratory failure caused due to asthma. However, this verdict was questioned and a new inquest was ordered to look into the cause of death after lawyers for the family put forth evidence to the attorney general in 2018. Upon conclusion of the two-week enquiry, Prof Stephen Holgate said a biological cause of Ella’s health further deteriorating in the cold weather months was due to the seasonal worsening contamination of air during winters.

He said it was the snowballing impact of the contaminated air that Ella was breathing in that caused the acute asthma attack. Holgate remarked: “Ella was like a canary in a coalmine”. His statement comes as a warning to the other Londoners regarding the toxic contaminants such as Nitrogen Oxide in the air that they breathe. Ella previously had numerous seizures and was taken to the hospital almost thirty times in the three years before her death.

Under laws of the EU, the annual average concentration level of nitrogen dioxide cannot exceed forty micrograms per cubic metre OF air (ug/m3). Britain has missed this target for a decade. The UN states that air pollution should be viewed as a matter of human rights. It is said to cause seven million untimely deaths a year, out of which 600,000 are children. About 40,000 deaths in Britain are linked to air pollution, according to research conducted in 2016 by the “Royal College of Physicians” and “The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health”. London has also introduced the world’s largest, citywide low-emission zone, requiring diesel vehicles to meet certain standards or pay daily charges. A report conducted by King’s College states, “Even with the measures in place, the capital is only expected to reach legal pollution limits by 2025”. This report is likely to increase pressure on the government to deal with illegal levels of air pollution across the nation.

 “The coroner’s unambiguous finding is a legal first and will certainly send a signal to the UK government,” commented Katie Nield, a lawyer at environmental law charity Client Earth, which provided assistance to Kissi-Debrah’s legal team.

“This is a historic and a ground-breaking decision which shows the devastating impacts of air pollution and the urgent need to clean up the air we breathe,” opined Larissa Lockwood, who leads the Global Action Plan’s clean air campaign.

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Kirit P. Mehta School of Law Publications