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UK refuses legal air pollution cut amid nation’s first associated death

The UK government has refused to commit to immediately lowering legal air pollution limits following the nation’s first recorded death due to toxic air – in 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.

Those still dubious as to the adverse health effects of air pollution surely won’t be by the end of this story.

This week marks the first, and hopefully the last instance that air pollution is directly responsible for claiming a life in the UK.

9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, a schoolgirl from south-east London tragically passed away back in 2013 due to an exacerbation of her asthma and multiple seizures.

Almost 10 years later, a coroner’s report has underlined air pollution as the central cause behind both the initial development of asthma, and the respiratory attack that would ultimately claim her life.

Marking the first official instance air pollution has been recorded as a ‘cause of death’ in the UK, eco-outfits are now demanding national air pollution limits be brought in line with those recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In the coroner’s findings, it was discovered that young Ella was exposed to toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter far in excess of those set out in WHO guidelines, the principal source of which were traffic emissions.

‘The national limits for particulate matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines,’ he revealed. ‘The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements.’

In response to this report, the government has outlined plans for a public consultation next January, with a view to setting stringent air pollution targets in October 2022.

In the immediate future, it has funded £6 million to local authorities with the goal of raising public awareness about the risks of air pollution.

The NHS will also take a more comprehensive overview of asthma management in day-to-day appointments, taking environmental ‘triggers’ into account more often.

For a number of NGOs and health charities, however, this change is deemed a meagre response to an underlying crisis in air quality. With emission levels currently at record numbers, ClientEarth lawyer Katie Nield lamented the official response as ‘nothing but old commitments repackaged.’

She definitely makes a compelling argument. Though government officials claim that air pollution levels have improved since 2010 – ignoring the obvious bearing Covid-19 lockdowns have had in the capital – thousands are exposed to pollution hotspots throughout the city and will be until further legislation is hashed out a year from now.

The story of Ella is essentially that of a canary in a coalmine. She was collateral in a world she hadn’t yet made her mark in, and her story is a stark reminder of just how much we have to do, and fast.

On the back of the eco-themed G7 summit in Newquay (for which the Prime Minister tactlessly arrived on a plane) this is anything but a good look for the UK.