Cause of death for girl, 9, listed as air pollution following asthma attack

The ruling in Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah's 2013 death is a UK legal first. She'd been hospitalized over 30 times in three years.

A nine-year-old English child is possibly the first person in the world to have an environmental condition listed as her actual cause of death.

The girl, Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, died in February 2013 after suffering a heart attack following a severe asthma attack.

Steam and exhaust rise from a coal-fired Germay power station in January. A nine-year-old girl in England is possibly the first person in the world to have an environmental condition listed as her actual cause of death. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Her medical cause of death was listed as acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure. Philip Barlow, London’s inner south coroner, concluded Wednesday she “died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”

Kissi-Debrah lived in a major circular road in southeast London. She had been hospitalized more than 30 times in less than three years during her short life.

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According to The Guardian, “Ella and her family lived just 25 meters from South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, where levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution from traffic constantly exceeded the annual legal limit of 40µg/m3 between 2006 and 2010.”

When the girl died in 2013, environmental factors were not listed as contributions to her death. However, after Kissi-Debrah’s mother, a former teacher, launched a non-profit to try to improve the lives of area children, she started learning more about the issues in her community.

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“I got a call from someone who told me [that] in the two days around Ella’s death, there were big spikes in air pollution locally,” Rosamund Kissi-Debrah told The Guardian.

Her case was ultimately taken by Jocelyn Cockburn, a human rights lawyer. Through a court inquest, government officials and even London Mayor Sadiq Khan were questioned about air pollution in southeast London.

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Kissi-Debrah’s mother testified that had she known it was the air in their neighborhood that was killing her daughter, she would have moved.

“We were desperate for anything to help her,” she said. “I would have moved straight away, I would have found another hospital for her and moved. I cannot say it enough. I was desperate, she was desperate.”

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Mayor Khan said the ruling in the case which correctly labeled Kissi-Debrah’s death will be a “turning point so that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella’s family.”

He is working to expand London’s low emission zones.

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