Ella Kissi-Debrah Inquest and the South Circular

The Coroner on the reopened inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah has delivered a verdict that says air pollution “made a material contribution” to her death. This decision has been long awaited, and indeed campaigned for, by those opposed to air pollution, particularly from vehicles.

Was the verdict surprising? I suggest not because it is well known that high air pollution can trigger and exacerbate asthma attacks, particularly in those sensitive to such events.

Ella Kissi-Debrah lived about 30 metres from the South Circular (A205) in Lewisham. This is a road that is often congested and is one of the few roads around the south of London and hence is used by many HGVs, buses and numerous other vehicles. Air pollution is obviously very high as a result along the road and no doubt nearby. The coroner’s verdict that air pollution contributed to the child’s death is not unreasonable. But Ella Kissi-Debrah seems to have had a long history of health problems that compounded her difficulties. Using this death as grounds for generalisations on the effects of air pollution on the population would not be wise.

This is a road that has not been fit for purpose for at least 50 years. This writer has been avoiding it for that length of time ever since I have lived in South-East London. There has been an abject failure by bodies such as TfL and the boroughs through which the road runs (including Lewisham) to improve the road and tackle the congestion which is a prime cause of the high air pollution.

Whether air pollution generally in London is a major threat to public health at its current levels is another matter altogether, however much campaigners on this issue promote the coroner’s verdict. With vehicles getting cleaner, while air pollution from other sources has been rising in London, simplistic analysis would be wrong. People have actually been living longer in general but it still makes sense to tackle the worse air pollution hot-spots.

Unfortunately Lewisham Council have actually made matters worse on the South Circular by closing roads under the banner of “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods”. This has diverted traffic from side roads onto the main roads including the South Circular, making it even more clogged up for most of the day. Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother, has complained about these actions and was quoted in the Times as saying “lots and lots of people live in these roads that are already gridlocked. And lots of children that live in these areas have respiratory issues. Is it morally right to add more traffic to those roads? We have to ask that question”.

In conclusion, as someone who has suffered from asthma in the past, let me say that cleaning up the worst locations on London’s roads for air pollution should be a high priority. Asthma is very unpleasant even in mild forms, and although treatments have improved in recent years, deaths from asthma can exceed 1,000 in a year in the UK.

There are several ways to reduce air pollution in high locations but certainly one of them is to ensure that roads have adequate capacity for the demand imposed on them.

Postscript: The Coroner’s verdict was widely misreported, including the BBC saying that air pollution was “the cause of her death” on TV News, implying it was the sole cause. The Coroner actually said that he intended to record “air pollution exposure” as a third cause of death in addition to acute respiratory failure and severe asthma. But he did criticise the authorities for failing to take action on excessive air pollution. Sadiq Khan made his usual political point by blaming his predecessor for lack of action on air pollution, but one might just as well blame Ken Livingstone and the Government before the GLA was formed because the problems on the South Circular go back many years.

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