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Ella Kissi-Debrah death: tougher air pollution limits needed, says coroner

Smoking exhaust

The UK needs to introduce legally binding air pollution targets based on World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, says coroner's report on the death of nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah.

Last year, a landmark inquest into the Kissi-Debrah's death ruled air pollution was a "material factor" in causing and worsening the asthma attacks she suffered, leading to her death.

In the Prevention of Future Deaths report, issued today (April 21), Philip Barlow, assistant coroner for the coroner area of Inner South London, said: "There is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken". 

He said that the national limits for particulate matter (PM) are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines. The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for PM and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.

The coroner's report also suggested there is "a low public awareness of the sources of information about national and local pollution levels".

"Greater awareness would help individuals reduce their personal exposure to air pollution," he said. 

"It was clear from the evidence at the inquest that publicising this information is an issue that needs to be addressed by national as well as local government. The information must be sufficiently detailed and this is likely to require enlargement of the capacity to monitor air quality, for example by increasing the number of air quality sensors."

Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “The coroner’s report highlights that air pollution is still putting people’s lives at risk in the UK – eight years after Ella’s death and over a decade after legal limits should have been met.

“Pollution is often touted as an ‘invisible killer’ but for a long time public bodies have been well aware of where harmful emissions are coming from and the impacts they are having on people’s health. All the while, solutions have been at their fingertips: a network of clean air zones would quickly remove the most polluting vehicles from our roads. The coroner himself has highlighted that legally binding targets based on stricter WHO guideline levels for harmful particulate matter would prevent future deaths.

“Toxic air is clearly not going to disappear on its own. The Government needs to get its act together and explain what more it is going to do prevent lives like Ella’s being cut short.”

Transport & Environment (T&E) UK director Greg Archer called for the Government to include the WHO limits for fine particles in the Environment Bill. 

He said: "Ella’s tragic death is a reminder of the risks vulnerable people face in our polluted cities. The Government must act on the advice of the coroner and include the WHO limits for fine particles in the Environment Bill.

"We must stop children dying from breathing toxic air.

"By taking this small, but important, step the Prime Minister will ensure many parents sleep easier.” 

T&E also believes a coordinated public information campaign is needed to address failings in the way the public are informed about dangerous levels of air pollution.

Watch now: Connecting Policy To Solutions Virtual Conference 2021

Smart Transport Conference returned on June 8th & 9th, to facilitate pivotal discussions on the future of transport. 

The UK’s most senior public and private sector transport leaders discussed the impact of Covid-19, achieving the Government’s decarbonisation ambitions, the need for more efficient living and better health, and much more.

Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), who spoke on BEIS's approach to decarbonising transport, particularly the electrification of the vehicle industry. Watch his presentation below:


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