Girl died of asthma after being exposed to pollution, inquest told

Girl died of asthma after being exposed to pollution, inquest told

November 30, 2020

Girl, nine, died of asthma attack after being exposed to pollution levels that ‘consistently exceeded’ legal limits outside her south London home, inquest hears

  • Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 after 3 years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital 
  • The nine-year-old lived 80ft from the South Circular road in south-east London
  • Inquest into her death in 2014 was quashed when new evidence came to light 
  • A ruling that air pollution was a factor in her death would be a legal first in Britain

Air pollution levels outside the home of a schoolgirl who died after an asthma attack ‘consistently exceeded’ legal limits, an inquest heard today. 

Ella Kissi-Debrah died after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for treatment to breathing problems.

The nine-year-old lived just 80ft from a notorious pollution ‘hotspot’ on the busy south circular road in Lewisham, south-east London – one of the capital’s busiest roads.

Ella was rushed to hospital following a 2am coughing fit but repeatedly lost consciousness and eventually died February 2013.

At a reopening of her inquest today, the hearing was told that levels of nitrogen dioxide where she lived had been over the limit for three years.

Representatives from the local council admitted it had moved at a ‘glacial’ pace after identifying concerns in 2007 but not bringing in an action plan for seven years.

The fresh hearing could result in a landmark decision and a ruling that air pollution was a factor in her death would be a legal first in Britain.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, nine, died in 2013, after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for treatment to breathing problems

An inquest in 2014 focused on Ella’s medical care and concluded the cause of her death was acute respiratory failure as a result of a severe asthma attack.

But a report submitted to the High Court by Professor Stephen Holgate in 2018 found that air pollution levels at a monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home ‘consistently’ exceeded lawful limits.

Her mother Rosamund successfully applied to the High Court to quash the original 2014 inquest into her death when new evidence came to light. 

Opening the inquest today, Assistant Coroner Philip Barlow said: ‘The question whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death is of course one of the central issues of the inquest.’

Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah listened in to the start of the landmark inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court today via an audio link.

David Edwards, Head of Environmental Health at Lewisham Council, confirmed diffusion tubes closest to Ella’s home were consistently exceeding the legal limits between 2006 to 2014.

He admitted pollution levels were a ‘public health emergency’ at the time of Ella’s death. 

They passed the annual mean of 40 micrograms per cubic metre or 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times in a year, a limit set out by the EU air quality directive 2008. 

The court heard Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) pollution levels could rise to dangerous levels at any hour but would not be counted as ‘an exceedance’ if counteracted by lower levels in that same year. 

The immediate area around Ella’s home, along with six other zones in Lewisham, had been declared an ‘air quality management area’ in 2013.  

Representing the family, Richard Hermer, QC, claimed the authority was fully aware of the dangerous nitrogen dioxide levels on the South Circular in the years leading up to her fatal asthma attack. 

The barrister said the action taken by the council had moved at a ‘glacial pace’ after it first identified the nitrogen dioxide breaches in 2007 and it’s effects on vulnerable people with respiratory conditions like Ella’s.

A ‘first draft action plan’ was published seven years after the air pollution risks were known, the court heard.

Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah (pictured) listened in to the start of the landmark inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court today via an audio link

During questioning, the council chief admitted the level of poisonous nitrogen dioxide was at ‘unlawful’ levels over the three years from 2010 until 2013.

Mr Hermer asked: ‘From 2010 until Ella’s death, the annual average levels of nitrogen dioxide were constantly at unlawful levels?’

Mr Edwards replied: ‘Probably, yes.’

Mr Edwards answered ‘yes’ when asked if levels were deemed as harmful by World Health Organisation limits in the years before Ella’s death.

He also agreed it should have been treated as ‘a public health emergency’ and that the Council had moved at a ‘glacial pace’ – taking seven years, from 2007, to bring in a so-called ‘action plan’ to tackle the problem.

Mr Hermer said: ‘That’s a glacial pace in the context of a public health emergency.’

The inquest continues.  

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