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Coroner urges air pollution law change after verdict on death of nine-year-old girl


A coroner has called for a law change after air pollution contributed to the death of a nine-year-old girl.

The child, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, died in 2013. An inquest had found air pollution "made a material contribution" to her death.

London inner south assistant coroner, Phillip Barlow, said there is "no safe level of particulate matter" in the air and called for national pollution limits to be reduced.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was the first UK person to have air pollution listed as the cause of death on their death certificate, following Mr Barlow’s inquest ruling.

In a report to prevent future deaths, the coroner has now said that the government should reduce existing legally-binding targets for particulate matter pollution to bring them in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

In the report, Mr Barlow called for more information about air pollution and its impact to be made available to the public.

Responding to the report, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, called on the government to act on the coroner's recommendations, warning "children are dying unnecessarily because the government is not doing enough to combat air pollution.

"As the parent of a child suffering from severe asthma, I should have been given this information but this did not happen. Because of a lack of information I did not take the steps to reduce Ella's exposure to air pollution that might have saved her life. I will always live with this regret but it is not too late for other children."

Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, Stephen Holgate, who has made special studies into asthma and gave evidence at Ella's inquest, said the report had "shone a brilliant white light on the importance" of air pollution and called on the government to "start to treat this with the seriousness that it deserves.”

He added: "If this was happening to water and 40,000 deaths were being brought forward due to poisoning, we'd be outside Parliament shouting."

Particulate matter consists of tiny particles known as PM2.5 which have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres,  one-four-hundredth of a millimetre, or three per cent of the diameter of a human hair.

They are so small they can lodge in the lungs and even pass into the bloodstream. There is evidence they can damage blood vessels and organs.

WHO guidelines suggest keeping an average concentration of PM2.5 under 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3), to prevent increased deaths.

The UK limit, based on European Union (EU) recommendations, is a yearly average of 25 µg/m3.

An inquest into Ella's death also found levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) near her home exceeded WHO and EU guidelines.

The Environment Bill, recently debated in Parliament, calls for a new target on air pollution before 2022.

Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah added: "I invite the government to act now to reduce air pollution. Not in eighteen months, not in five years. People are dying from air pollution each year. Action needs to be taken now or more people will continue to die."

Chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, Sarah Woolnough,  said limiting air pollution to WHO guidelines would be "a game-changer, potentially preventing thousands more families facing the death of a loved one because of air pollution."

She said children, older people and the 6.5m people in the UK living with respiratory disease, are all at risk from toxic air.

A government spokesperson said: "We will carefully consider the recommendations in the coroner’s report and respond in due course.

"We are delivering a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and going further in protecting communities from air pollution, particularly PM2.5 which is especially harmful to human health."