The UK acknowledges air pollution as a cause of death for the first time in the case of Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah

Ella lived her whole life near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, southeast London, one of the capital’s busiest roads. The coroner said: “During the course of her illness between 2010 and 2013 she was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter in excess of World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines”. The main source of her exposure was from traffic sources and there was a recognised failure to reduce the level of nitrogen dioxide to within the limits set by European Union and UK domestic law.

The Southwark coroner’s court ruling concludes a seven-year battle by Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah Ella’s mother, to find out why her daughter died in 2013. The ruling will inevitably put pressure on the UK government and local authorities to take more action to save thousands of lives cut short by air pollution each year. Ella is the first person in the UK and possibly the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on their death certificate. Philip Barlow, said: “On the balance of probabilities, air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death… I intend to record 1a) acute respiratory failure, 1b) severe asthma, 1c) air pollution exposure”, as the medical cause of death.

According to a UK government spokesman, the government’s landmark Environment Bill will see spending of £3.8 billion to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution. The government plan to set ambitious new air quality targets with a primary focus on reducing public health impacts particularly from PM2.5 pollution which is particularly harmful to people’s health.

Rosamund would like Ella’s legacy to be a new clean air act. This has been backed by many other campaigning groups who have responded to the verdict by calling for ‘Ella’s Law’ a new clean air act creating duties and powers for the government and local authorities to work together to reduce air pollution from traffic and buildings and take action when air pollution exceeds World Health Organisation guidelines.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London said: “The Coroner has today concluded that air pollution played a role in the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013. This is a landmark moment and is thanks to the years of tireless campaigning by Ella’s mother Rosamund, who has shown an extraordinary amount of courage. I’m delighted that I have been able to support the family in their efforts to get the original inquest overturned and securing today’s important finding. Today must be a turning point so that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella’s family”.

“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. 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”.

The Ramphal Institute stand in solidarity with Rosamund Addo Kissi-Debrah and family. Since running an international conference on toxic air pollution in Commonwealth megacities in 2018 – with participation from Dhaka, Delhi, Johannesburg, Lagos and London – it has been building alliances to take forward a proposal for a UN-recognised right to clean air, comparable to the right to water recognised by the UN in 2015.

The Southwark Coroner’s court ruling, should be a powerful signal to common law jurisdictions throughout the Commonwealth. With eight partner bodies including UNICEF and support from the Foreign Commonwealth Development Office, the Ramphal Institute will continue to raise awareness of air pollution throughout the Commonwealth. Its second international ‘Air Pollution’ conference in March 2021 will result in a ‘Call’ to the Commonwealth to become a global champion for cleaner air.  Specifically, it will call on all Commonwealth governments to fight for a UN right to clean air, ‘A Right to Breathe’ and to ensure that clean air commitments are included in the climate change summit (CoP26) in Glasgow November 2021.