Leading human rights lawyer, Jocelyn Cockburn has written to the Attorney General asking him to quash the inquest conclusion of a nine-year old girl and order a fresh inquest because new evidence has come to light that London’s unlawfully high levels of air pollution contributed to her death.
It is believed that air pollution has never before been cited on a UK death certificate.
Ella Kissi-Debrah died on 15 February, 2013. Up until the end of 2010, Ella had been extremely active and in a good health. Yet following a chest infection in October 2010, she suffered from respiratory issues for the remainder of her short life, being treated across five London hospitals for severe unstable asthma, resulting in 27 separate hospital admissions over a three-year period. An inquest into Ella’s death at Southwark Coroner’s Court on 26 September 2014 concluded that her death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma.
If pollution is found to be a relevant causative factor in the nine-year-old’s death then this has potentially far reaching implications for other deaths from asthma and related respiratory conditions.
Yet, after Ella’s death, her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah set up the Ella Roberta Family Foundation to try to try learn more about her unexpected death: “After Ella’s death I remember feeling that I had let her down. I was determined to establish how a nine-year-old girl with asthma was dead. Following Ella’s inquest, I was no closer to understanding what had caused her asthma attacks and why they could not be controlled or prevented.” says.
Over time Rosamund says that she became aware of the dangers posed by air pollution and discovered that her home, located approximately 25 metres from the South Circular, was a known air pollution ‘hot spot’: “I discovered information about the dangers of pollution and started to put two and two together. If I had been aware of the dangerous levels of air pollution and the impact of poor air quality on Ella’s health, I would have changed our day-to-day life to reduce the impact. I wasn’t aware that the South Circular Road often had very bad air pollution, or that my home was in an area of high pollution.
“It is also striking that given our contact with the medical profession during the last three years of Ella’s life, no-one seemed to consider the impact of air pollution on her asthma.”
After this discovery, Rosamund approached Jocelyn Cockburn, civil liberties partner at London solicitors Hodge Jones & Allen to see whether a new inquest would be possible. Jocelyn then set about building a case to present to the Attorney General, who is the only person who can quash the conclusion from the first inquest into Ella’s death and order a new one.
Writing to the Attorney General last week, Jocelyn Cockburn presented evidence from Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology and Honorary Consultant Physician at University Hospital Southampton.
Taking data from pollution monitoring stations close to Ella’s home, Professor Holgate found that air pollution levels exceeded EU limits for large parts of Ella’s illness. In his report he concludes that unlawful levels of air pollution contributed to the cause and seriousness of Ella’s asthma in a way that greatly compromised her quality of life and was causative of her fatal asthma attack on 15 February, 2013. He said that there was a real prospect that without the unlawful levels of air pollution at the time that Ella would not have died and gave his ‘firm view’ that Ella’s death certificate should reflect air pollution as a causative factor.
Jocelyn Cockburn says: “I believe there are strong grounds for Ella’s inquest to be quashed on the basis that her right to life (Article 2 of the Human Rights Act) may have been breached by the government’s failure to act in relation to unlawful air pollution levels. There is a clear need for a fresh inquest to investigate the link between air pollution and Ella’s death so that the family can properly understand the circumstances that led to her untimely and tragic death, and that lessons can be learned to prevent future deaths.
“It doesn’t make sense that so much information is now available about the health impact of air pollution and the link to thousands of the deaths in the UK and yet there has been, as yet, no direct link made to an individual death. Ella’s case illustrates the hard-hitting human impact of air pollution.
“The government has willingly presided over illegal EU air quality limits since 2010 and this ongoing failure is costing lives. There needs to be an immediate sea change in how air pollution is dealt with in our cities.”
The challenge to the Attorney General is brought by Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah on behalf of one of Ella’s siblings who has not been named on the legal documents.