A 9-year-old girl was killed by air pollution, says a UK court ruling

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah passed away at the age of 9 in London in 2013. For the first time ever, a UK court has ruled that air pollution was the cause.

Air pollution “made a material contribution” to the death of a nine-year-old girl in London. It’s the first time ever in the UK that air pollution has been identified as a cause of death as a result of a landmark court ruling based on evidence presented by coroner Philip Barlow. The court reached its decision after several weeks of deliberations which culminated a seven-year-long legal battle.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died on 15 February 2013

On the 15th of February 2013, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah tragically passed away after failing to overcome a severe asthma attack. The illness had already caused her many difficulties throughout her short life, and she had been hospitalised almost thirty times. Ella lived in Lewisham, in a house near the South Circular, one of the busiest roads in the southern part of the UK capital.

smog, london
The city of London shrouded in smog © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

One year later, in 2014, a British court found that the child’s death was attributable to acute respiratory failure caused by a severe form of asthma. At this point, no blame was placed on air pollution. It has taken more than five years to overturn this ruling: a number of witness accounts were heard throughout the appeals process, which was requested as new evidence based on scientific advances emerged. A 2018 report drafted by air pollution specialist Stephen Holgate was especially influential in the case.

“Striking association” between pollution and asthma attacks

Holgate found a “striking association” between Ella’s hospitalisations and the presence of high levels of air pollutants recorded at monitoring stations near her home. In other words, when levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates increased, Ella’s breathing difficulties would get worse.

Holgate, Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, explained that Ella was “living on a knife-edge” and that even small changes in air quality could lead to dramatic consequences for her. And this is what happened, as the UK’s justice system has established.

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