Air pollution – Britain’s invisible killer

In a land-mark ruling, the inner south London coroner Philip Barlow, has ruled that the death of nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah from Lewisham from an asthma attack in February 2013 was partly a result of illegal levels of air pollution in the area she lived, writes Alan Thornett.

The Guardian environmental correspondent Sandra Laville quotes him as follows: “the whole of Ella’s life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads and I have no difficulty in concluding that her personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and PM was very high.” Air pollution, he said, had induced and exacerbated her severe asthma. It is the first ruing anywhere in the world to identify air pollution as a cause of the death of an individual. (Guardian Dec 17)

She points out that: “Ella lived within 25 metres of the south circular road in Lewisham, and other busy routes. During her lifetime nitrogen dioxide emissions in Lewisham, where she lived, exceeded EU and national legal limits and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Particulate matter (PM), PMs 10 and 2.5, levels were above the WHO guidelines. In the three years before her death, Ella had multiple seizures and was admitted to hospital 27 times after severe asthma attacks.”

After the announcement of the ruling Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who has campaigned on this issue ever since her daughter died, called on the government to introduce a new Clean Air Act. Such an Act she said “would be a fitting legacy for her daughter – my biggest desire is to prevent future deaths”. She should be given all possible support in achieving that objective – but there is a long way to go.

The WHO identifies ambient (i.e. outdoor) air pollution as the most dangerous form of such pollution. It estimates that it is responsible for around 4.2 million deaths globally per year whist indoor (household) air pollution from cooking and heating with polluting fuels are responsible for an estimated 3.8 million.

Fortunately, it is possible to cut this pollution quite quickly given the political will. Measures to bring this about should include low emission zones and measure such as congestion charges to reduce emissions. More importantly we should support the complete abolition of the internal combustion engine for road transport: i.e. cars, vans, lorries and buses in the shortest possible time. We should argue that Johnson’s 2030 deadline for England should be brought forward. We should also support a big reduction in the total car fleet alongside the introduction of free public transport.

Electric cars (EVs) would get rid of the most important pollutant involved here, which is nitrogen oxide. Particulates generated from the wear to tyre and brake pads would continue but nitrogen oxide is by far the most dangerous.

This would be the best way to mark Ella Kissi-Debrah’s short and tragic life, and to support her mother’s ambition to ensure that the carnage resulting from internal combustion engine emissions is brought to an end.

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1 Comment on Air pollution – Britain’s invisible killer

  1. A far more effective method than low emission charge zones (not “congestion” charges) would be to have car-free zones. This would mean that rich people were not allowed to drive in such areas as well. Why should those who can afford it be allowed to pollute our air? The car-free zones should apply to electric cars too (these also are only accessible to the more wealthy in society), at least until private car (and fleet car) ownership no longer exists and the local authorities have set up car banks for communal use.

    Perhaps an immediate shock, such as immediate world-wide ban on the production of all internal combustion engine cars, should be considered. This was done in many countries in WW2 and the CoViD crisis has shown that such measures can be acceptable and change behaviour. They are a signal of the seriousness of the crisis facing us,

    There would need to be redeployment of workers into other industries, in the UK maybe wind turbines and air source heat pumps for home heating, along with an accelerated scrappage scheme so that the materials in old ICE cars can be used for such products. This would reduce the demand for extraction of ores and accompanying biodiversity loss and further ecological and human destruction.

    It should be added that PM10s and PM2.5s are also major air pollutants. There should be an immediate ban on the use of solid fuel stoves in zones designated as smoke control areas under the Clean Air Act. There are hundreds of appliances that are allowed, e.g. in England:

    Biomass boilers should be phased out too.

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