Landmark Coroner’s Court decision lists air pollution as a cause of death

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The death of a nine-year-old girl in South London in 2013 following a severe asthma attack has prompted a landmark decision by a Coroner’s Court to list air pollution as a cause of death.

Phillip Barlow, the Inner South London Coroner, concluded that Ella Kissi-Debra was exposed to excessive nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions where she lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, South East London.

In his narrative verdict, Phillip Barlow said levels of NO2 near Ella’s home exceeded World Health Organization and European Union guidelines and that air pollution had “made a material contribution to her death”.

Ella regularly walked and cycled along the busy South Circular road. The inquest heard that in the three years before her death, she had multiple seizures and was admitted to hospital 27 times.

Phillip Barlow found that air pollution both induced and exacerbated Ella’s particular form of asthma.  He concluded that it was the cumulative effect of the toxic air she was breathing while living within 30 metres of the South Circular road that caused her final, fatal asthma attack.

Risks of air pollution

Sadly, the inquest heard that Ella’s family did not know the risks posed by air pollution. However, experts have known for many years about the toxic effects of pollution on public health. The dangers were recently highlighted in the respected medical journal The Lancet.

Evidence suggests that across the UK, there has been widespread flouting of legal requirements to reduce and control exposure to diesel fumes by local authorities and employers.

In July 2020, a data audit by Friends of the Earth revealed 1,360 sites in the UK had breached the annual Air Quality Objective for NO2 levels, posing a direct risk to health.

Just last year, The Guardian highlighted that air pollution in Bristol kills five people a week and causes many more to suffer asthma, cancer, and stroke.

Novum Law’s Phillip Gower, who heads up our Cardiff office, specialises in helping people with respiratory diseases and conditions, including claims involving exposure to toxic materials such as asbestos. He is currently investigating and representing clients who have suffered a respiratory injury, cancer, and strokes due to diesel fumes and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Phillip Gower said:

“There can be no doubt that exposure to high levels of pollution from traffic and, particularly diesel engines, causes respiratory injury and can exacerbate any pre-existing respiratory problems.

“My clients tell me that their exposure to diesel fumes in the workplace and in areas where there are heavy traffic and increased levels of pollution has a significant effect on their health. Their fear is that this exposure is causing their ongoing respiratory difficulties, and in some cases, permanent disability, which could lead to reduced life expectancy.

“The findings of Ella’s inquest should now be a wake-up call to the Government and all local authorities that urgent steps need to be taken to reduce exposure to excessive, illegal levels of air pollution. Failure to do so could result in many more people suffering from the deadly effects of NO2 and facing serious ill health and potentially, untimely death as a result.”

If you or a family member is suffering from a respiratory condition, cancer, or other illness that you think may have been caused by exposure to air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide or carbon monoxide, Novum Law’s specialist lawyers can provide expert legal advice.

Call Novum Law on 0800 884 0777 or email to arrange a free, no-obligation chat.


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