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Jocelyn Cockburn Responds to DEFRA’s Latest Environmental Consultation

Targets are not world-leading and ignore danger to public health” says Jocelyn Cockburn on DEFRA’s latest environmental consultation

16 March 2022, London: The lawyer who led the landmark inquest into the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, which found in 2020 that Ella died of air pollution, has criticised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for the targets announced in its latest consultation on environmental targets, as part of its commitments in the Environment Act 2021.

Jocelyn Cockburn, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, led the legal team acting on behalf of Ella’s mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who was determined to answer why her lively, sporty, and talented daughter died of respiratory failure in 2013, after three years of more than 30 hospital admissions associated with her asthma. In December 2020, Deputy Coroner Phillip Barlow ruled that “excessive levels of air pollution” made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death.

Following the Inquest, the Deputy Coroner produced a Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD) report, which recommended that government departments involved in the inquest – including DEFRA – should note that “The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for Particulate Matter and that the World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK”.

The recommendations from the PFD report did not legally compel the government to act, but Jocelyn Cockburn believes that the Government has a duty to act:

“The evidence presented at the inquest and reflected in the Coroner’s ruling and his PFD report underline the need for immediate action to save lives. The WHO’s evidence-based reasoning for updating its own air quality guidance in 2021 paints an overwhelming picture that more needs to be done to preserve life”

“These targets from DEFRA are certainly not world-leading and ignore the danger posed to public health. The inquest in 2020 demonstrated the lethal toll air pollution has on human health; the scientific and medical evidence presented by a number of experts was clear. It is deeply disappointing and concerning for all vulnerable people in our communities that the government is showing so little ambition in its current proposals.”

Under existing law, the UK legal limits for PM2.5 are more than four times the WHO guideline limits, which were updated in 2021 to an annual mean concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) 5 µg/m3. The new consultation is on reaching the WHO’s old limits of a concentration of 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 across England by 2040. The limits have already been in place in Scotland since 2016. The consultation also does not address another particulate matter, PM10, which in UK law has a legal limit of more than double those recommended by the WHO guidelines.

Commenting on DEFRA’s announcement, Ella’s mother and clean air activist Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, said: “I feel incredibly let down by the new air pollution targets suggested by the government. These new guidelines mean children will continue to die. Since my daughter passed away nine years ago, the number of children dying from asthma hasn’t gone down, and these targets aren’t going to change that.

They were set in 2005 by the WHO, and they don’t need to be fulfilled until 2040 – this is so unambitious. The government calls them ‘world leading’, but they are not. In Scotland they set the 2005 WHO guidelines in 2016.

Does our government not see the health crisis? Hospital waiting lists getting longer, partly due to filthy air? People suffering from asthma, lung and heart disease, stroke, dementia, suicide, infertility, miscarriage, poor cognitive development. And as ever, children suffer the worst, inhaling toxic air from before they’re even born.

Next month it will be a year since the coroner issued his recommendations for preventing future deaths, in response to the inquest into the death of my daughter from air pollution. But the government continues to show no interest in following them. Are we just meant to live with air pollution?”

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15 February 2013
Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died of a severe asthma attack following nearly 3 years of seizures and over 30 hospital admissions associated with her asthma. She was 9 years old.

24 January 2014
Rosamund establishes the Ella Roberta Foundation in honour of what would have been Ella’s 10th birthday.

26 September 2014
First Inquest into Ella’s death takes place at Southwark Coroner’s court before Assistant Coroner, Phillip Barlow. The cause of death was recorded as Acute Respiratory failure caused by severe asthma. The first inquest into her death did not investigate the role of air pollution.

2015 /2016
Air Pollution came to prominence through reporting about the Dieselgate scandal, in which it was revealed a number of car manufacturers had installed ‘defeat devices’ to mask emissions levels in official tests. The ClientEarth Supreme Court ruling which ordered the UK government to reduce pollution levels to within lawful limits. Sadiq Khan becoming London Mayor and raising the profile of air pollution and the publication of a groundbreaking report by the Royal College of Physicians (authors including Professors Holgate and Grigg) setting out the ‘dangerous impact of air pollution on the nation’s health’.

Rosamund had begun campaigning and speaking about air pollution during this period and became increasingly concerned that air pollution may explain Ella’s death.

Independently, Jocelyn Cockburn, in her work as a human rights lawyer was exploring the possibility of launching legal action against the government on behalf of those whose health was impacted by air pollution. Jocelyn herself was affected, having a restricted lung capacity and asthma. Jocelyn was forced to leave London in 2018 because of the impact of air pollution on her health.

May 2016
Rosamund seeks legal advice from Jocelyn at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors following concerns that Ella’s health may have been affected by air pollution and her concerns about the impact of air pollution on her other children. Different legal options are considered and preparatory work is carried out to analyse the levels of air pollution that Ella was exposed to, obtain evidence from Rosamund about Ella’s life and health and to obtain expert evidence.

July 2018
Rosamund and her lawyers apply to the Attorney General to reopen the inquest into Ella’s death following new evidence from a report from Professor Stephen Holgate on air pollution.

August 2018
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, adds his support to the call to quash the first inquest. Rosamund delivers a 100,000 petition to the Attorney General.

February 2019
Rosamund and her lawyers apply to the high court to quash the findings of the first inquest.

2 May 2019
High Court judges quash the findings of the first Inquest due to new evidence about the risks of air pollution following evidence submitted suggesting that air pollution contributed to her death. The court rules that it is necessary in the interests of justice for a fresh inquest into Ella’s death to be held.

30 November – 11 December 2020
Second Inquest into Ella’s death, investigating the role of air pollution in Ella’s death.

16 December 2020
Conclusions delivered by Deputy Coroner Phillip Barlow ruling that air pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death.

21 April 2021
Prevention of Future Deaths report released by Deputy Coroner Phillip Barlow, which made three key recommendations: legally binding targets for PM10 and PM2.5 particulates based on WHO guidelines; a public information campaign on the dangers of air pollution; and improved teaching and professional guidance for the medical community on the dangers of air pollution and options for patients.