After delivering his ruling on the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the coroner turned to her mother sitting in the court and thanked her. Philip Barlow said: “We all have many reasons to thank you for the determination you have shown in getting us here.”
Ben Webster, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah fought to secure a fresh inquest into her daughter’s death not only to find out why she died but to ensure other parents never had to endure the same agony.
The Commons environmental audit committee warned in 2010, when Ella made the first of about 30 visits to hospital after severe asthma attacks, that air pollution caused 35,000 premature deaths in the UK. Subsequent reports produced similar statistics but, despite promises, successive governments and local authorities did little.
The death of a nine-year-old girl, who the inquest was told would have been repeatedly terrified by the sensation of drowning because of mucus blocking her airways, has brought a human face to statistics.
Seven years after her death in 2013, some parts of the country, especially in London, still have illegal levels of air pollution. Nearly half of the 56 million people in England were exposed last year to levels of fine particles, the most dangerous form of air pollution, that exceeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended limit.
Many politicians have shied away from acting on air pollution because the solutions involve potentially unpopular restrictions such as charging drivers of polluting vehicles to enter urban areas and banning or restricting domestic fires.
The government has pledged under the Environment Bill to set a new legally binding target for fine particles but it has not said what that will be or when it should be achieved. The ruling on Ella’s death and renewed calls by her mother and others for a new Clean Air Act may embolden ministers to set an ambitious target based on WHO recommendations and give local authorities new powers and resources to deliver it.
The finding that Ms Kissi-Debrah was not given information about the health risks of air pollution by doctors or via government alerts on poor air quality will also help to ensure other parents are properly informed.
The inquest was told that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had expert knowledge about air pollution levels and risks, and the Department of Health failed to work together to tackle the problem.
The court was told that none of the clinicians who had treated Ella at six different hospitals from 2010 to 2013 had considered the possible impact of air pollution. Her mother said that she would have moved home to a less polluted area if she had been informed of the risks and the coroner ruled that this would have made a difference.
The government and local authorities are now under greater pressure to improve text, internet and roadside warnings of poor air quality, which are still not reaching many vulnerable people.
Next month Mr Barlow will issue what is known as a “prevention of further death report”, which is expected to give details of the risks identified during the inquest that still need to be addressed. This will put further pressure on the government to act.
The new Clean Air Act, which Ms Kissi-Debrah is seeking, could be known as “Ella’s Law”. It might carry the name of one little girl who lost her life to air pollution but could save thousands of others from the same fate.