Mother wants inquiry into role of pollution in daughter's asthma death

Lawyer for Rosamund Kissi-Debrah says government may be in breach of duty of care over death of nine-year-old in London

A woman whose daughter died from an asthma attack wants an investigation to find out whether worsening air pollution in London contributed to the death.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, nine, from Hither Green near the capital’s busy south circular road, died in February 2013.

Through a lawyer, her mother, Rosamund, is calling on the attorney general to order a second inquest or to set up an independent inquiry to determine the impact of pollution on her child’s asthma and death. She is also calling for immediate action to reduce exposure to toxic air for children such as her son, Robert, whose lives she believes, remain at risk.

The moves could pave the way for ground-breaking legal action against the Greater London Authority and other government bodies for failing to protect her child and others from air pollution.

Jocelyn Cockburn, a human rights lawyer who is working with the family, said: “There are strong grounds to believe that our government may be in breach of its duty to protect life in Ella’s case.”

Concern is growing about air pollution in London, which is currently ranked 15 out of 36 world cities, behind Paris, Berlin and Chicago. According to City Hall, almost 10,000 Londoners die every year because of polluted air and the capital does not meet the legal requirements for pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide. Research published by the World Health Organisation in May showed that London has breached safe levels of pollutant particles known as PM10.

Kissi-Debrah attended Holbeach primary in Lewisham. She died suddenly, having suffered several seizures following coughing fits which resulted in her being treated in hospital. In a narrative conclusion, the original coroner, Phillip Barlow, ruled that Ella had suffered a severe asthma attack followed by a seizure.

“Three years after Ella’s tragic death there are still unanswered questions about why she died,” said Cockburn. “The inquest did not identify the cause of Ella’s asthma and the pathologist confirmed that this was unknown although he suggested that it may be an allergic reaction to an inhaled antigen from something in the air. What is striking is that the issue of air pollution has been overlooked both in the inquest and, so far as the family is aware, in the ongoing child death review into Ella’s death by Lewisham council.”

She added: “Article 2 of the Human Rights Act requires government bodies to take reasonable steps to protect those such as Ella from the effects of air pollution if they are aware, or should be, that it poses a real and immediate risk to their lives. There is now ample evidence that air pollution does pose a risk to life – in fact it causes around 9,500 early deaths in London per year. We also know that the air in many parts of London, as well as cities beyond, is so dirty that we have been in breach of EU air quality limits since 2010.”

If it is proved that air pollution played a significant role in Kissi-Debrah’s death, it could trigger a compensation claim and a legal challenge to force government bodies to take immediate steps to curb pollution.

In a statement, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “I would like to extend my condolences to Ella’s friends and family. Her death is truly tragic. I am determined to get to grips with air quality, something that has not been a high enough priority until now. I was elected with a mandate to tackle London’s dangerously polluted air and make sure that breathing clean air is a right, not a privilege.”

In one of his first acts as mayor, Khan launched a consultation on extending London’s ultra-low emission zone to the north and south circular roads and the possibility of bringing forward the introduction from 2020. He also published a report that was never released by the previous mayor Boris Johnson, which showed that schools in the poorest areas of the capital experienced the worst pollution.


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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