Did London pollution cause child’s death?

New inquest to explore the role of pollution in Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death

Air Pollution over London's skyline
Air Pollution over London’s skyline
(Image credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

An inquest is to explore whether air pollution in London caused the death of a nine-year-old girl.

What happened?

Ella Kissi-Debrah suffered a fatal asthma attack in February 2013, after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for breathing problems.

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She lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south east London. The Daily Mail says the family home of “beautiful, bright and bubbly” Kissi-Debrah was just 80ft from a notorious pollution “hotspot”.

What will the inquest examine?

A new inquest will look into the role of the government as it examines whether air pollution caused or contributed to Kissi-Debrah’s death. The outcome of the inquest could be highly significant. New Scientist points out that although scientists have linked 40,000 premature deaths a year to air pollution, it has never been cited as the cause of an individual’s death.

The outcome of a previous inquest, in 2014, which ruled Kissi-Debrah died of “acute respiratory failure”, was quashed by high court judges after fresh evidence emerged regarding air pollution levels in the capital.

The new hearing will be a full inquest under article 2 – the right to life – of the Human Rights Act, which means it will be empowered to scrutinise the role of public bodies, including the government, in her death.

The inquest will hear from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport, Lewisham council, the Mayor of London’s office and Transport for London.

Was pollution responsible?

In a provisional hearing at Southwark coroners’ court, assistant coroner Philip Barlow said: “It does seem to me that the scope of the investigation needs to move on to look at the pollution issue.”

Barlow said the new inquest would investigate how air pollution levels were monitored and what steps were taken to reduce the pollution, after Kissi-Debrah’s family had asked the inquest to look at whether there was enough information available about the levels of air pollution in London.

Following the hearing yesterday, Kissi-Debrah’s mother, Rosamund, told reporters: “I'm just relieved that's over for today - it's a week before Christmas. All I can say is we know a lot more now about air pollution. We hope it will save future lives.”

In March, scientists announced that number of early deaths caused by air pollution is double previous estimates, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking.

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