Air Clean Up

  • Air Pollution Recognised as Cause of Death - What Are the Implications?

Air Pollution Recognised as Cause of Death - What Are the Implications?

Jan 07 2021 Read 689 Times

Last month saw a UK court deliver the landmark ruling that air pollution was responsible for the death of an individual. In 2013, nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah had her life tragically cut short after prolonged exposure to illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), among other pollutants.

In December 2020, Southwark Coroner’s Court concluded that the poor quality of air to which Ella was exposed on a daily basis had “made a material contribution” towards her premature death, the first time such a ruling has ever been delivered in the UK and possibly anywhere in the world. But while the decision offers scant solace to Ella’s mother – who had fought her case doggedly for years – it may serve as an important precedent for others suffering from exposure to air pollution going forwards.

A tragic tale

Ella suffered from severe asthma and in the three years prior to her tragic death, the girl had been hospitalised 27 times due to suffering seizures as a result of her condition. Thanks to sophisticated new forms of air quality monitoring, NO2 concentrations near the South Circular Road in Lewisham are well-known to be in excess of the levels recommended by the WHO and permitted by EU law.

In 2013, Ella suffered a particularly serious asthma attack. She was taken to hospital but this time, she did not survive. Ever since, her mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah has fought tooth and nail for doctors and lawyers to recognise air pollution as a credible cause of her daughter’s death. But while it’s unlikely that the ruling will encourage other medical professionals to come to a similar conclusion without the pressure exerted upon them by Rosamund, the verdict could be influential in other ways.

Star witness

The adverse health impacts of air pollution have been common knowledge for many years now, with the government itself admitting that around 35,000 premature deaths per annum were attributable to contamination as far back as 2010. The difference in Ella’s case was the role of star witness, Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, an expert in his chosen field.

Sir Holgate took it upon himself to examine all of the evidence at play and draw specific correlations between poor air quality and a single death, something which has not happened in the UK before. “This is the first time a distinguished medic has stuck his head above the parapet,” explained Professor Roy Harrison from Birmingham University. “He looked at the data, looked at the health records, and said on the balance of probabilities air pollution was a major causal factor in the death of this child.”

What next?

One of the more feasible scenarios in which Ella’s ruling could have a tangible effect on someone’s life is when it comes to rehousing. Since Ella suffered from asthma, anyone else suffering from the same ailment who lives in an area with poor air quality could see their relocation made a priority, especially if they are living in council or social housing.

Healthcare concerns have already been highlighted throughout almost the entirety of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with Ella’s death having been attributed to air pollution by a court of law for the first time, there will be even more pressure on local and national authorities to introduce new perspectives on emissions monitoring, clean up Britain’s air and bring down the number of avoidable deaths caused by poor air quality today, tomorrow and far into the future.


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