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Coroner urges UK to clean up toxic air after London girl's death

by Lin Taylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 April 2021 14:07 GMT

A photo of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who died in 2013. Photo supplied by Ella Roberta Estate

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Britain should introduce legally-binding targets to save lives after pollution led to death of schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah, coroner says

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A coroner on Wednesday urged Britain to adopt legally-binding air quality targets to save lives, after a landmark ruling found air pollution contributed to the death of a London schoolgirl.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, aged 9, had severe asthma and died in 2013 after being exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution, largely from traffic emissions, coroner Philip Barlow ruled during an inquest last year.

"There is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken," Barlow said in a report published on Wednesday, urging the government to adopt pollution targets based on World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.

"The national limits for Particulate Matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines ... Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK."

Particulate matter, produced by industry, vehicle emissions and home heating, is made up of tiny particles like dust and smoke that can lodge in the lungs and enter the bloodstream.

About 40,000 deaths in Britain each year are linked to air pollution, found a 2016 study by the Royal College of Physicians, a professional membership body, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, a charity.

A spokeswoman from Defra, the government's environment department, said it would "carefully consider the recommendations in (the coroner's) report and respond in due course".

"Through our landmark environment bill, we are also setting ambitious new air quality targets, with a focus on reducing public health impacts," she added in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The European Union has legal limits on air pollution, resulting in legal action against countries flouting the rules - including Britain for exceeding its nitrogen dioxide target for a decade.

Since Britain left the bloc last year, parliament has been working on an Environment Bill, which will introduce a new regulator and create a framework for environmental targets.

The coroner also called on medical professions to do more to raise awareness of the health impacts of air pollution to help patients reduce their exposure to it.

Kissi-Debrah's mother, Rosamund, said such education could have helped prevent her daughter's death.

"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," she said in a statement.

"Children are dying unnecessarily because the government is not doing enough to combat air pollution."

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(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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