Mother of asthma death girl seeks ‘justice’ in air pollution case

The mother of a girl who suffered a fatal asthma attack thought to have been triggered by air pollution said she wants “justice” for her late daughter.

Nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 having suffered numerous seizures and made almost 30 hospital visits over the previous three years.

An inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court is considering whether dangerous levels of air pollutants around her home may have contributed to her death.

She had lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London – one of the capital’s busiest roads.

Speaking at the end of the final day of inquest hearings on Friday, Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said she hoped the upcoming conclusion will have a positive impact on other children’s lives.

She said: “I am very tired. The reason why this whole thing started, at the end of it, I would like justice for my daughter and that is why I am here, first and foremost.

“I do also appreciate that if we get the judgment (conclusion) that we need, it will impact a lot of children’s lives for the better and that’s what this process is about.”

Ms Kissi-Debrah, a teacher, told journalists outside the coroner’s court that air pollution was “impacting on everyone’s” lives.

She said: “The evidence we have heard over the course of this inquest has covered the very real threat of air pollution to human health and the necessity of reducing toxic emissions to mitigate against that threat.

“Whatever the outcome, I sincerely hope that the issues of air pollution and the dangers it poses to vulnerable individuals, especially children and the elderly, will have a much-needed impact on those who can bring about urgent change, and that will be governments, local councils and campaigners.”

The High Court quashed a 2014 inquest ruling that found Ella died of acute respiratory failure following new evidence about the dangerous levels of air pollution close to her home.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah

Assistant coroner Philip Barlow is due to give his conclusion on the latest inquest on Wednesday.

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, the author of the report that quashed the findings of the first proceedings, said Ella had an “exceptionally rare” form of asthma that put her at “exquisite” risk.

Asked at an earlier hearing whether she could be thought of as a “canary in a cage” highlighting the risk of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) to other Londoners, Sir Stephen, professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, replied: “I would probably use the expression ‘canary in a coalmine’.

“Two centuries ago that’s exactly what canaries were used for, to detect high levels of pollutant gasses – in that case high levels of carbon monoxide and methane.”

The Department of Health, the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been named among the interested parties in Ella’s death.

Alan Payne QC, for the three Government departments, suggested that World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance stated that it was difficult to draw full conclusions on the impact of pollutants on humans based on the evidence of studies on mammals.

Ella may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death.