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‘Still justice to be served’ for 9-year-old Ella, who died of London air pollution

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A coroner ruled one year ago yesterday that air pollution around Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s London home contributed to her death, aged nine. The youngster, alongside her two siblings, grew up near one of the capital’s busiest roads in Lewisham, where air quality levels frequently fell below UK standards and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. Ella, who would have turned 18 next month, died following a severe asthma attack in February 2013.

Writing in the Daily Express, her mother Rosamund said: “I longed to be able to tell Ella the real cause of her asthma, because we only learned about the impacts of air pollution from diesel and petrol vehicles after she died. Part of me thought ‘Yes, we’ve finally done it’. Ella is now the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. A year later, however, I believe there is still justice to be served for Ella’s death.”

A recent investigation by Daily Express, for our Green Britain Needs You campaign, showed how nearly all children in the UK are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution outside school. At least 88 percent of schools are in areas breaching new WHO limits for the gaseous pollutant nitrogen dioxide, figures from Global Action Plan showed.

This figure rises to 99 percent of UK schools exceeding WHO guidelines for deadly PM2.5 particles – tiny particles from burning fossil fuels. That puts at risk the health of nearly nine million vulnerable youngsters across the country – from nurseries to colleges.

Coroner Philip Barlow earlier this year called for legally binding maximum levels of particulate air pollution to be lowered in the UK to be in line with WHO limits. He also called for more and better information provided to the public about air pollution levels in their area.

Rosamund said: “We know that [Ella’s] fatal respiratory attack coincided with a spike in air pollution near our home. “Yet no one has taken responsibility for the filthy air she breathed – let alone taken the necessary steps to prevent future deaths.”

MPs voted to strip measures to clean up the air from the Environment Bill just days before the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow last month. The Environment Act, which passed in November, was a “missed opportunity” for the UK to set air quality targets in line with the WHO’s guidelines, Rosamund said.

The Government plans to hold a consultation on air quality measures and set any possible future targets in October 2022.

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COMMENT By Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah 

A year ago today, a coroner ruled that air pollution around our home, near London’s South Circular, contributed to my daughter Ella’s death in 2013, at the age of nine. 

If I hadn’t had Ella’s siblings with me in that courtroom, I would have burst into tears. But once a mum, always a mum. I longed to be able to tell Ella the real cause of her asthma, because we only learned about the impacts of air pollution from diesel and petrol vehicles after she died. 

Part of me thought “Yes, we’ve finally done it’”. Ella is now the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. 

The coroner’s report a few months later set out the three changes needed to prevent future deaths like Ella’s: reduce air pollution in line with what the World Health Organisation deems acceptable, improve air pollution monitoring and raise awareness about it, and educate healthcare professionals to advise their patients on how air pollution could be causing their illness. 

A year later, however, I believe there is still justice to be served for Ella’s death. 

We know that her fatal respiratory attack coincided with a spike in air pollution near our home. Yet no one has taken responsibility for the filthy air she breathed – let alone taken the necessary steps to prevent future deaths. 

The Environment Act passed in November was a missed opportunity for the UK to set air quality targets in line with the WHO’s guidelines. Instead, the government will hold a consultation on air quality measures and set targets in October 2022.

As many as 24 children in the UK could die from asthma over that year. 

We – the public – can make that time count, by demanding action. Air pollution is an invisible killer, much like Covid-19. But the air can be cleaned by phasing out the burning of fossil fuels, especially from internal combustion engines. 

The verdict confirmed that Ella’s death was preventable. It’s time for governments to take responsibility and protect children from suffering the way she did.

The Ella Roberta Family Foundation is holding a candlelight vigil to mark Ella’s 18th birthday at 3:30pm on Sunday, January 23, 2022, in Mountsfield Park, Lewisham.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is a BreatheLife Ambassador and the founder of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation

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