The London Borough of Lewisham acted at a “glacial pace” to address illegal levels of air pollution around the time of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death, a landmark inquiry heard today.
Nine-year-old Ella lived around 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south London. She died on 15 February 2013 of a severe asthma attack following nearly three years of seizures and more than 30 hospital admissions linked to her asthma.
Her mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, has battled for several years for an inquiry into the role of air pollution from cars in her daughter’s death.
Over the next 10 days, a landmark inquest will consider whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s fatal asthma attack. If the inquest finds in favour of Ella’s family, she will be the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.
An inquest ruling from 2014, which found that Ella died of acute respiratory failure, was quashed by High Court judges in light of new evidence on the possible role of air pollution.
A 2018 report by Prof Stephen Holgate, a leading researcher of air pollution from the University of Southampton, found that pollutant levels at a monitoring station one mile from Ella's home “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death.
Speaking at Southwark Coroner’s Court today, Richard Hermer QC accused the London Borough of Lewisham of failing to treat air pollution as a priority despite knowing how dangerous it is.
The barrister said it took seven years for Lewisham to produce a strategy for dealing with air pollution after learning of studies indicating that it had reached toxic levels.
“That's a glacial pace in the context of a public health emergency, isn't it?” Mr Hermer said.
David Edwards, Lewisham Council’s head of environmental health, replied: “Certainly when you look at it in the context of today, yes.”
Speaking ahead of the inquest, Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said: “It’s coming up to eight years since Ella passed and it’s been a long hard fight to get this inquest, with challenges along the way. What I want is justice for Ella and for her to have on her death certificate the true cause of why she died.”
In court Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said that she was never told of the risks of air pollution.
Sian Berry, Green Party co-leader and candidate for London Mayor, said: “The thoughts of all Greens are with Rosamund today as she takes this important step towards justice for her daughter Ella.
“Clean air is a human right, and this inquest could make history and force real action to deal with toxic pollution at speed, at last.
“No parent should ever lose a child because of the air they breathe.”
Ella's inquest has been listed under Article 2, the right to life, of the Human Rights Act, which scrutinises the role of public bodies in a person's death.
Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “The UK government needs to sit up and take notice of this crucial inquest. Ella may be the first person in the world with air pollution recognised as a cause of death on their death certificate.
“The government has been failing on its existing legal obligations to make our air safer to breathe for over 10 years now, dithering and delaying despite court orders – and this apathy is fatal.
“To prevent future tragedies, the law needs to be strengthened to better protect people’s health. That’s why the government needs to commit in the Environment Bill to a legally binding target to achieve World Health Organisation guideline levels for harmful particulate matter pollution by 2030 at the latest.”
Agencies contributed to this report