Mother of air pollution death girl criticises wait to bring in pollutant limits

·5 min read

The mother of a schoolgirl who died after exposure to air pollution has said she is “sad and disappointed” over the wait to bring in new legal limits for pollutants.

The Government has outlined measures in response to a prevention of future deaths report into the case of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 after being exposed to excessive air pollution.

They include a consultation early next year on new legal targets for particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, with the aim of bringing them in by October 2022, using WHO guidelines to inform the ambition in setting the goals.

But her mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said “we need action now”, and raised concerns about children who would die before the changes were brought in.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said she was ‘sad and disappointed’ nothing was being done sooner on bringing in legal limits (Kirsy O’Connor/PA)

Her legal team also called for a firm commitment to meeting the WHO guideline standards in the soonest possible time, and criticised the wait until October 2022.

Ella lived 25 metres from the busy South Circular in Lewisham, London, and was exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter above World Health Organisation guidelines, mostly due to traffic fumes.

The coroner’s report, following a second inquest which ruled that air pollution contributed to her death, called for legally-binding goals for dangerous pollutant particulate matter (PM2.5) that are in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Assistant coroner Philip Barlow also said local and national governments should address the lack of public awareness about pollution information.

The Government’s response to the report said immediate action would be taken to raise public awareness about air pollution.

It also sets out an extra £6 million for local authorities to improve air quality and moves to work with broadcasters, social media companies and app providers to spread information about high pollution levels.

The Government is working on a “more sophisticated” population exposure reduction target which aims to drive reductions not just in pollution “hotspots”, but in all areas, officials said.

The NHS in England will also work on a more systematic approach to asthma management, including identifying environmental triggers and promoting more personalised care for individual patients.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Ella’s death was a tragedy and I would like to pay tribute to her family and friends who have campaigned so tirelessly on this issue, and continue to do so.

“Today’s response is part of a much wider cross-Government effort to drive forward tangible and long-lasting changes to improve the air we breathe, as well as doing more to inform the public about the risks.”

He added that air pollution levels had reduced significantly since 2010, but said: “We know that there is more to do, which is why we are setting new legally-binding targets on particulate matter pollution and building on our Clean Air Strategy to accelerate action to clean up our air.”

Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said: “Why do we have to wait 16 months for these changes to take effect? We need action now.”

She said that with the UK hosting the international Cop26 climate talks in November, the country should be leading by example on the environment.

And she said: “I’m sad and disappointed that nothing’s being done sooner. What about the children who will die in the interim?

“And will the Government commit to definitely setting these targets into legislation by October 2022? Will those targets be adhered to?

“These intentions need to be enshrined in law to make sure they do happen. I shall be watching it closely to make sure they deliver on their promise.”

Jocelyn Cockburn, partner with HJA Solicitors, who are the family’s legal team, said: “There should be a firm commitment to meet the WHO guideline standards in the soonest possible time.

“As the coroner said, these should be seen as the ‘minimum requirements’. Unfortunately, there is no commitment here to enforcing WHO guidelines but instead to using them as a basis for target setting.

“Given that children are dying now, we need an unequivocal commitment from the Government to set legally binding targets based on WHO guideline limits.

“We shouldn’t be waiting until October 2022.”

She said it could be done through the Environment Bill currently going through Parliament, and there was no need for a consultation on the issue, saying “it is clear, that where lives are at stake, public health outranks other factors”.

Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said millions of people with asthma and other lung conditions would welcome a plan to make more health information available to the public and health care professionals, warning about the dangers of air pollution.

“But these plans just scratch the surface of what needs to be done to protect children like Ella from polluted air.

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“We need ambitious new laws that tackle the cause of the problem, with targets that meet the coroner’s recommendation to adopt World Health Organisation guidelines.

“Without bold action, tens of thousands of people will continue to die early from air pollution each year,” she warned.

Air pollution, caused by pollutants including particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from sources such as traffic fumes, as well as domestic heating fuels and agriculture, contributes to tens of thousands of early deaths a year.

It can create a catalogue of health problems: it triggers strokes, heart and asthma attacks, causes cancer and can stunt lung growth in children, has been linked to premature births, damage to children’s learning and even dementia.

Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, which has won a series of legal victories over the Government on air pollution, said ministers had only announced old commitments repackaged.

She said: “This is a disgrace, given what happened to Ella and what continues to happen to children and adults across the country because of toxic air.

“If the Prime Minister really wants to make the Environment Bill a lodestar, his Government has to massively step up.”

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