A court in the UK has made legal history by ruling that air pollution is one of the causes of the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi Debrah, who lived near a busy road in London with her mother. Ella has become the first person in the UK – and potentially the world – for whom air pollution is listed as a cause of death. It will now be stated in Ella’s death certificate that she died from the following causes: acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure.
Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 following three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for breathing problems. An inquest in 2014, which focussed on her medical care, ruled she died of acute respiratory failure as a result of a severe asthma attack. After years of campaigning in December 2019, the family’s legal team were successful in their application to the High Court to reopen the inquest, in light of new evidence regarding air pollution levels.
The full inquest, which began on November 30 and ran for 10 days, considered whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death and how levels were monitored at the time. Other issues addressed at the inquest included the steps taken to reduce air pollution, and the information provided to the public about the levels, its dangers and ways to reduce exposure.
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Dr. Arvind Kumar, founder trustee of the Lung Care Foundation and chairman of the Institute of Chest Surgery in India: “No child should die the way Ella did, struggling for breath. No parent should have to worry the way Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah did about whether her child could breathe, or have to rush her to a hospital every time she couldn’t. By listing air pollution as a cause of Ella’s death, the UK coroner has made it clear that governments around the world, including in India, have an obligation to ensure for children our human right to life, to breathe clean air, and to live in a healthy environment. Governments must step up and protect our youngest generations from suffering the way Ella did,” Dr Kumar told The Indian Express
“It is time the government pulled up its socks. Ella’s case is a cue for the government take air pollution seriously,” Dr Sundeep Salvi, Founder of Pulmocare Research and Education(PURE) said. The World Health organisation estimates that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by bad air.
Dr. Poornima Prabhakaran, deputy director at the Centre for Environmental Health at Public Health Foundation of India said the results of the inquest into Ella’s death will set a precedent for future battles for the ‘right to breathe clean air’. Both from a human rights perspective as well from a health perspective, governments around the world have a duty to effect policies and air quality management plans that uphold the health of their citizens, especially young and vulnerable children like Ella, at the core of all actions. Poor air quality affects children at every stage of life and therefore protecting our future generation across their entire life course is key.”