Coroner calls for air pollution law change following death of Ella Kissi-Debrah

The government should introduce legally binding targets for particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, the coroner in the inquest of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah has said.

In a landmark ruling in December 2020, coroner Philip Barlow ruled that Ella was the first person in the UK – and likely the world – to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Ella grew up near one of London’s busiest roads, where air quality frequently fell below UK standards and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, Ella died following a severe asthma attack in February 2013. 

During the course of the inquest, the evidence revealed various matters giving rise to concern. 

In today’s report, the coroner concluded: 

  • The national limits for particulate matter (PM2.5) are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines. The evidence at the inquest revealed there is no safe level for PM2.5 and the WHO guidelines should be seen as a minimum requirement.
  •  There is low public awareness of the sources of information about national and local pollution levels. Greater awareness would help individuals to reduce their personal exposure to air pollution. It was clear from the evidence at the inquest that publicising this information is an issue that needs to be addressed by national as well as local government.
  • The adverse effects of air pollution on health are not being sufficiently communicated to patients and their carers by medical and nursing professionals.

The coroner, Philip Barlow said in the report, which is being sent to various government and NHS departments: ‘In my opinion, action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you and your organisation have the power to take such action.’

The government bodies have a duty to respond to the report within 56 days and must outline details of action taken or proposed to be taken. 

Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, commented: ‘The Coroner’s report highlights that air pollution is still putting people’s lives at risk in the UK — eight years after Ella’s death and over a decade after legal limits should have been met.

‘Pollution is often touted as an ‘invisible killer’ but for a long time, public bodies have been well aware of where harmful emissions are coming from and the impacts they are having on people’s health. All the while, solutions have been at their fingertips: a network of Clean Air Zones would quickly remove the most polluting vehicles from our roads. The coroner himself has highlighted that legally binding targets based on stricter WHO guideline levels for harmful particulate matter would prevent future deaths.

‘Toxic air is clearly not going to disappear on its own. The government needs to get its act together and explain what more it is going to do prevent lives like Ella’s being cut short.’

Photo Credit – Ella Roberta Foundation 


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