9-Year-Old Girl’s Asthma Death Officially Linked to Air Pollution in Unprecedented Coroner Ruling

Health + Wellness

The extremely busy South Circular Road in London, which exposed Ella Kissi-Debrah to illegal levels of air pollution before her asthma death in 2013. Danny Robinson / CC BY-SA 2.0

A UK coroner ruled Wednesday that the asthma death of a nine-year-old girl was partly caused by the illegal levels of air pollution she was exposed to near her Southeast London home.

The ruling is a legal first for the UK, The Guardian reported. Charities Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation also said it was the first time anyone in the world had air pollution listed as a cause of death on their death certificate, CNN reported.

“Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution,” inner South London coroner Philip Barlow decided Wednesday, as The Guardian reported.

Ella Kissi-Debrah lived 80 feet from the extremely busy and polluted South Circular Road. Her ordeal began at the age of six, when she was taken to the hospital in 2010 because of a severe coughing fit, BBC News reported. She was placed in a medically-induced coma for three days to stabilize her condition. By 2012, she was classified as disabled because of her respiratory problems. She died Feb. 15, 2013 after a severe asthma attack. Between her first hospitalization and her death, she had been hospitalized 27 times and experienced multiple seizures.

Immediately after she died, her cause of death was listed only as a severe asthma attack leading to respiratory failure, CBS News reported. But Stephen Holgate, the former chair of the UK government’s advisory committee on air pollution and a professor at the University of Southampton, prepared a report for Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah. The report found that the times Ella was rushed to the hospital corresponded with times when air pollution spiked around her home, as EcoWatch reported in 2018.

The report was then used to open a new inquest into Ella’s death, according to CBS News. This was the process that led to Wednesday’s ruling.

“Air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of her asthma,” Barlow said, according to a PA story reported by CNN. “During the course of her illness between 2010 and 2013 she was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The principal source of her exposure was traffic emissions.”

Barlow also said that her death might have been prevented if her mother had been given more information about the dangers of air pollution and its relationship to asthma.

Kissi-Debrah said she was pleased with the new ruling and hoped it would be her daughter’s legacy.

“We’ve got the justice for her which she so deserved,” Kissi-Debrah said, according to a PA story reported by CNN. “Also it’s about other children still as we walk around our city of high levels of air pollution. Her legacy would be to bring in a new Clean Air Act and for governments – I’m not just talking about the UK government – governments around the world to take this matter seriously.”

Around seven million people die every year because of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Nine out of ten people also breathe air that exceeds WHO pollution limits. In London, more than two million people and 400,000 children are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, CBS News reported.

“Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children, and the inquest underlined yet again the importance of pushing ahead with bold policies such as expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone to inner London,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement responding to Wednesday’s ruling. “Ministers and the previous Mayor have acted too slowly in the past, but they must now learn the lessons from the Coroner’s ruling and do much more to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution in London and across the country.”

Clean air advocates are calling for urgent action in response to the decision, including making London streets more friendly for biking and walking and increasing the city’s clean-air zone for vehicles, BBC News reported.

Professor Gavin Shaddick, a government advisor on air pollution who leads Exeter University’s data science department, said he hoped the ruling would make action to fight air pollution easier.

“It’s just regrettable it’s taken this case to achieve it,” he told BBC News.

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