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We must ensure the bravery of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s family means others avoid the same ordeal

Today Ella's mother Rosamund will give evidence to court officials examining if and how air pollution contributed to her daughter’s death. It is the right time to reflect on a legacy helping to transform how we view air pollution.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was nine years old when she died from a fatal asthma attack in 2013. She lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, South East London and died after three years of seizures and respiratory failures which included nearly 30 ambulance trips to five different emergency hospitals.

Nothing can reduce the immense loss and suffering her family have had to endure. But the campaign they launched in her name could secure a legacy which helps transform how we view air pollution, and protects many other children from the dirty air which clogs London’s streets. 

This is a critical moment. After years of tireless campaigning, Ella’s mother Rosamund and her legal team were successful in applying to the High Court to reopen the inquest into her death. Today, Rosamund will give evidence to officials at Tooley Street Town Hall who are examining whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death, and if the UK authorities should have done more to prevent this. If successful, the challenge will see Ella become the first person in the UK, and possibly the world, for whom air pollution is listed as a cause of death. 

Firstly and most importantly, this would bring some comfort to her family – to know that the truth of Ella’s death has been recognised. But it also has broader implications for the air pollution debate in the UK. The case will ask how air pollution levels were monitored at the time; what steps were taken by authorities to reduce air pollution; and how much information was given to the public about the levels and dangers of pollution. The fact the new inquest is happening at all shows how clean air is increasingly understood as a fundamental human right, which governments have a duty to protect just like access to water and sanitation.  

Much has changed in London since the first inquest into Ella’s death suggested “something in the air” may have contributed to her death. Today, Mayor Sadiq Khan is working with Rosamund and many other experts and campaigners on a wide range of programmes and policies designed to reduce air pollution and raise awareness. This has  already seen a dramatic drop in air pollution and given London one of the most comprehensive and innovative air pollution monitoring systems in the world.

This progress is impressive, but the work is far from done. Across the UK, the facts on air pollution are stark. Recent data from King’s College London showed that long-term exposure to poor air quality is predicted to cause up to 36,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, by an average of 11.5 years. This is more than double the number dying from passive smoking before the smoking ban was introduced. And we will not only count the cost in human lives. Public Health England found that the health and social care costs of England’s air pollution could amount to £5.3 billion by 2035 if pollution levels remained the same. 

As elsewhere in the world, this problem affects the most vulnerable first and most. Young children, adults and households in poverty have the highest levels of exposure to road traffic-related air pollution in the UK, even though they emit the least traffic emissions. 

There are specific things the UK government can and should do to build on progress to date. It should adopt the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline limits for particulate matter (PM2.5) as legally binding targets for 2030. It should set up clean air zones in Manchester and Bristol, and develop supporting policies to make sure those on low incomes are supported to transition away from polluting vehicles. 

It is also important to keep deepening our understanding of the problem and communicating the danger to the public, as well as the steps we can take together to reduce air pollution. Establishing a clear and direct cause between dirty air and children dying will strengthen the case and build momentum for campaigns on air quality. 

Rosamund has rightly received widespread recognition for her efforts so far – she was recently named on BBC Woman’s Hour’s Power List for 2020, amongst other things. Recounting the circumstances of her daughter’s death today will be an ordeal which no parent should have to go through. Hopefully, her courage will create the conditions for change which mean no other mother has to suffer as she has.

Banner image credit: Ella Roberta Foundation