PM urged to set tougher pollution targets in law in wake of schoolgirl’s death

Emily Beament and Aine Fox, PA
·4-min read

The Prime Minister has been urged to set tougher legal pollution targets “to stop people from dying” after the death of a schoolgirl exposed to toxic air.

The mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah called for action to tackle deadly air pollutants “immediately”, after a coroner’s report recommended stricter legally binding targets for dangerous particulate matter pollution to prevent more deaths.

Philip Barlow, assistant coroner for Inner South London, ruled in a landmark second inquest last year that air pollution contributed to the death of the nine-year-old from a fatal asthma attack in 2013.

In a report to prevent future deaths on Wednesday, he said lower legal limits for particulate matter in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK and the Government should take action to address the issue.

He also said greater public awareness of air pollution information would help individuals reduce their personal exposure.

And he warned the adverse effects of pollutants were not being sufficiently communicated to patients and their carers by medical staff.

Responding to the report, Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, said: “I can’t stress enough to the Prime Minister, if one has to, to please put this into law now, to stop people from dying.”

She said it would be “catastrophic” if the Government did not adopt WHO guidelines.

Ella was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as the cause of death on their death certificate, following the inquest ruling by Mr Barlow last December.

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

She died in February 2013, having endured numerous seizures and made almost 30 hospital visits over the previous three years.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah called on the Prime Minister to put WHO guidelines on air pollution into law (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

In his report following the second inquest, published on Wednesday, Mr Barlow said national limits for particulate matter – a dangerous form of air pollutant – were set far higher than WHO guidelines.

“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter 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 report said.

He said Government departments for environment, health and transport should address the issue, while local and national governments should address the lack of public awareness about pollution information.

Health bodies and professional organisations needed to tackle the failure by doctors and nurses to communicate the adverse effects of air pollution on health to patients, he said.

Ms Kissi-Debrah said she would be contacting Environment Secretary George Eustice to urge him to put the WHO pollution guidelines into law in the Environment Bill and achieve them in the shortest possible time.

She said a public health campaign on air pollution was needed, similar to awareness around the dangers of smoking, and suggested air pollution could be part of daily weather reports – not to scare people but to educate them.

Asked how quickly change needs to come, she told the PA news agency: “Now. Immediately. If you’re the one who’s having to rush your child into hospital, then you would want something done now. So I couldn’t elaborate on that. Now.

“Am I insisting? Yeah, OK. I think I have earned that right to insist.”

She added: “Air pollution affects more people than we think.

“Yes, it affects the vulnerable more, yes it affects people who live near busy roads more – as I am testament here. But in a way, it does impact all our lives.”

And she said: “If Ella wins, so does everyone else. So today again, she’s won, but today I feel it’s for everybody else.”

Health and environmental campaigners backed her call for action from Government to tackle air pollution in cities, much of which comes from traffic fumes.

A Government spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts continue to be with Ella’s family and friends.”

The spokeswoman added that the Government was delivering a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle nitrogen pollution, and was setting ambitious new air quality targets, with a focus on reducing public health impacts.

“We will carefully consider the recommendations in the report and respond in due course,” the spokeswoman said.