Health secretary: child’s death is reminder why we must tackle air pollution

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he hopes more people will be persuaded to support the drive for clean air after a nine-year-old girl’s death was linked to unlawful levels of air pollution.

Ella Kissi-Debrah lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham in south east London – one of the capital’s busiest roads, and died in February 2013 after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for asthma attacks.

On Friday her family was given permission by the Attorney General to apply for a fresh inquest, after their lawyers said the original held in 2014 did not investigate the potential impact of air pollution.

Speaking as the government’s Clean Air Strategy was launched, and asked what he would say to Ella’s family, Mr Hancock told the Press Association: “That I hope as a society we can use this terrible tragedy to persuade more to support the cause of clean air.

Clean Air Strategy
Clean Air Strategy

“It is devastating for the family and we should all use this example as a reminder of why to support clean air – because clean air saves lives.”

Pressed on whether the strategy, launched on Monday, comes too late, Mr Hancock said: We need to do everything we can to improve air quality.

“We are the fifth-richest nation on earth and we have the capability in this country to make even more progress than we already have.”

He said that “no individual can rise to it on their own”, with everyone required to do their bit because “air pollution kills”.

“The saddest part of it is that children are amongst the most affected because their lungs are still growing,” he added.

“So it is vital for all of our sakes, but especially for children who live in cities, that we do everything we can to have clean air.”

The original inquest concluded that Ella’s cause of death was acute respiratory failure caused by a severe asthma attack.

But an expert report by Professor Stephen Holgate revealed air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death.

A leading expert in asthma and air pollution, he found a “striking association” between Ella’s hospital admissions and air pollution episodes, and that there was “a real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution Ella would not have died”.

An application will now be lodged and a judge will decide if a new inquest will take place. If the family’s request is granted, Ella may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death.

At the BT Tower on Monday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said his “heart goes out to her family”, and that with a potential new inquest it would be inappropriate for him to pre-empt what that might say.

“But when we have had inquests in the past that have pointed to the need to change the law, then we in government and Defra have been determined to make sure the law can be changed as quickly as possible when full lessons have been learned,” he added.

As part of the Clean Air Strategy Mr Gove has called for action on emissions from a variety of sources, including in the home, as he set out plans to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter – considered the most damaging pollutant.

Stoves and open fires are now the single biggest source of particulate matter emissions, according to the Department for the Environment, which intends to restrict sales of wet wood for domestic burning and apply sulphur and smoke emission limits to all solid fuels.

The proposals include plans to legislate to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels and ensure only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022, and there will be changes to existing smoke control legislation, as well as new powers for local authorities to take action in high pollution areas.

Asked what he would say to those who think the strategy is a distraction from the real killers and problems such as traffic pollution and diesel emissions, Mr Gove said all causes of air pollution need to be looked at.

“We have already outlined ambitious plans to make sure that there will be no new petrol or diesel cars after 2040, and to ensure that they are removed from our roads by 2050,” he said.

“It is not just the case that vehicle pollution is responsible for toxifying our air, it is also the case that we need to deal with how we generate heat and power, but we also need to look at agriculture and other transport sources of emission.”

Mr Gove denied that 2040 is too late for change when it comes to diesel and petrol vehicles, because “industry needs to adapt” and urgent action is being taken.