United Kingdom

Inquest into asthma girl's death is told policy fuelled rise in pollution 

Labour's ‘dash for diesel’ led to an increase in poisonous pollution which might have contributed to the death of a young girl, an inquest heard yesterday.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died aged only nine after she was rushed to hospital following an asthma attack.

The gifted schoolgirl, who wanted to be an RAF pilot, had endured seizures and almost 30 hospital visits after developing breathing problems in the three years leading up to her death in 2013.

An inquest into the death of a nine-year-old girl is ongoing. Ella Kissi-Debrah, pictured, died in 2013, after three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for treatment to breathing problems

A landmark inquest opened this week after new evidence revealed air pollution near her home – only 25 metres from the congested South Circular, in Lewisham, south-east London – ‘consistently’ exceeded lawful limits in the run-up to her death.

Professor Stephen Holgate, a leading expert on pollution, found levels of deadly nitrogen dioxide and pollution primarily from diesel traffic spiked around her home at the same times Ella fell ill.

A Labour government policy giving motorists a financial incentive to switch from petrol to diesel vehicles in a bid to cut carbon emissions over the last two decades led to an ‘unanticipated’ increase of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) particulates, the inquest heard.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, Ella's mother, outside the hearing, which is due to last 10 days and could set a new legal precedent if it is found poor air quality contributed to the death of Ella

Dr Bill Parish, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said in evidence: ‘At the time the UK government gave very high priority to early action on carbon dioxide for the purposes of tackling climate change ... I think people were making conscious vehicle choices. It was an enthusiastic uptick in diesel.’

He added: ‘I understand that it was trying to decrease carbon dioxide emissions ... But the effect was to increase nitrogen dioxide emissions. That is what the data starts to tell us when the diesel fleet starts increasing.’

Assistant Coroner Philip Barlow asked Dr Parish: ‘Surely if you are giving people financial incentives and that is going to lead to an increase in diesel, it can’t be unanticipated, can it?’

The drive to move away from petrol started in the early 2000s and saw the number of diesel cars on the road soar from 3.5million to more than 12million.

Ella's mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah (pictured) listened in to the landmark inquest at Southwark Coroner's Court via an audio link as the court heard evidence

Dr Parish said that eventually, in 2011, an air pollution plan was put in place to meet low NO2 pollution targets set out in EU law.

He added: ‘London had a zone plan because it was in exceedance or was going to be. There were lots of areas within London in exceedance of the NO2 value.

‘The exceedances would have been concentrated in areas where there would have been busy roads and junctions. So it might be there were many hot spots where NO2 levels exceeded the value.’

Experts studying the source of the increasing pollution discovered that road traffic had been a major contributor.

Dr Bill Parish, from Defra, said there was 'an enthusiastic uptick in diesel' vehicles when the Government set a very high priority on tackling carbon dioxide levels and climate change

‘Whilst roads where you have the highest levels of traffic are likely to be places where most NO2 is emitted, you can’t ignore that congestion on smaller roads also elevate levels of NO2,’ Dr Parish said.

An inquest ruling from 2014, which found Ella died of acute respiratory failure possibly triggered by ‘something in the air’, was quashed by High Court judges in light of the new evidence.

The schoolgirl’s mother Rosamund successfully applied to the High Court last year to order a second inquest following Professor Holgate’s 2018 report.

The hearing could make legal history if Ella becomes the first person in the UK to have ‘air pollution’ listed as a cause of death.

The inquest, due to last two weeks, continues.

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