An inquest is to consider evidence that illegal levels of air pollution caused the death of a nine-year-old girl, in a landmark legal case.
A coroner will be asked to rule that toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide, from the South Circular road in south London, led to the acute asthma attack that killed the primary school pupil, Ella Kissi-Debrah. Her mother, Rosamund, a former teacher, has fought for years for an inquiry into the role of air pollution from traffic in Ella’s death.
A finding that air pollution was a causative factor in Ella’s death in February 2013 would make legal history. It has never been identified as a cause of death before in the UK, and this is thought to be the first case of its kind in the world.
The inquest, which begins on Monday, was granted after lawyers for the family presented new evidence that directly linked her serious form of asthma and her death with the heavy traffic on London’s South Circular near her home in Lewisham, south-east London. Her death coincided with one of the worst air pollution surges in her local area.
The coroner for the inner south district of greater London will examine potential failings by government authorities to take adequate steps to reduce air pollution and to provide public information about the risks from toxic air, as well as the extent to which any state failing contributed to Ella’s death. Ministers have repeatedly failed to bring air pollution from traffic within legal limits, for which they have been censured by judges several times.
Speaking before the hearing, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said: “It’s coming up to eight years since Ella passed and it’s been a long, hard fight to get this inquest, with challenges along the way. What I want is justice for Ella, and for her to have on her death certificate the true cause of why she died.”
The first inquest in 2014 made no mention of air pollution. The coroner ruled Ella had died of acute respiratory failure caused by severe asthma. This verdict was quashed in 2019 and a new inquest ordered after lawyers for the family presented evidence to the attorney general in 2018 from Prof Sir Stephen Holgate, one of the UK’s leading experts on air pollution.
Holgate mapped Ella’s admissions to hospital with spikes in air pollution levels around her home. The serious episode that culminated in her death on 15 February 2013 coincided with one of the worst air pollution surges in her area.
Levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution primarily from diesel traffic breached legal limits above 40 µg/m3 around the South Circular for much of the time while Ella was ill, he found.
His report concluded: “The dramatic worsening of her asthma in relation to air pollution episodes would go a long way to explain the timing of her exacerbations across her last four years. There is a real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died.”
Jocelyn Cockburn, partner at Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors, who represent Ella’s mother, said it had been a privilege working with her over the past four years in her search for answers about her daughter’s death.
“It has been a significant achievement getting to this point, where there will be a fresh inquest to examine whether air pollution caused Ella’s death,” said Cockburn. “Rosamund’s account of Ella’s struggle is very powerful and illustrates the human suffering behind the statistics.
“The inquest will examine the actions, or inaction of UK government authorities – both during Ella’s lifetime and today – in tackling air pollution, and the coroner will consider if Ella’s death could have been avoided and if lessons need to be learned to avoid future deaths.”
Kissi-Debrah, who will be among the first witnesses to give evidence on Monday, said had her daughter lived, she would be 16. “It’s a completely different world without her and I do wonder, if she was here, what she’d be up to now, what her interests would be, what she’d make of the world.”
Katie Nield, a lawyer at the environmental law charity ClientEarth, which successfully took the government to court over illegal air pollution levels, said: “The government has been failing on its existing legal obligations to make our air safer to breathe for over 10 years now, dithering and delaying despite court orders – and this apathy is fatal.”