Nine-year-old’s fatal asthma attack is ‘canary in a cage’ warning on London air pollution, inquest hears

Inquest may set new legal precedent if coroner finds poor air quality contributed to Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death 

Andy Gregory
Wednesday 09 December 2020 23:54
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Ella Kissi-Debrah died of a fatal asthma attack in February 2013
Ella Kissi-Debrah died of a fatal asthma attack in February 2013

A nine-year-old girl who suffered a fatal asthma attack was a “canary in a cage” signalling the risk of dangerously high levels of pollution to other Londoners, an inquest has heard.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 having suffered numerous seizures and being taken to hospital nearly 30 times in the three years prior.

She may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death, after new evidence showing high levels of air pollution near her home saw a previous inquest ruling from 2014 – which found that she died of acute respiratory failure – quashed by the High Court.

A fresh inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court is considering whether dangerous levels of air pollution around Ella's home in Lewisham may have contributed to her death.

Ella lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road, one of the capital's busiest roads.

She had an “exceptionally rare” form of asthma that put her at “exquisite” risk, said the author of the report that quashed the findings of the first proceedings, Professor Sir Stephen Holgate.

He was asked by Richard Hermer QC, counsel to Ella’s family, whether she could be thought of as a “canary in a cage” highlighting the risk of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) to other Londoners.

“I would probably use the expression ‘canary in a coalmine’,” Sir Stephen replied.

“Two centuries ago that's exactly what canaries were used for, to detect high levels of pollutant gasses – in that case high levels of carbon monoxide and methane.”

Three central government departments have been named among the interested parties in Ella’s death – the Department of Health, the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Other interested parties are Ella’s mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, Transport for London, the Mayor of London's Office and Lewisham Council.

Alan Payne QC, representing the three government departments, suggested that World Health Organisation guidance stated that it was difficult to draw full conclusions on the impact of pollutants on humans based on the evidence of studies on mammals.

Sir Stephen replied: “If this was a drug, for example, and you've got five different animal models that develop lung cancer with the drug, and that was at three to five times the dose that the human had, the drug would never have gone through into [clinical trials].”

Sir Stephen, who is professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton University, also rejected a suggestion that Ella’s seizures could have been triggered by anxiety over having asthma attacks – a mechanism often found to cause panic attacks.

“You have a person drowning in secretions, about every one to five weeks – would it not be surprising for a child aged six to eight not to have some anxiety and psychological problems?” he said, adding: “Secondly, if you are saying psychological factors were driving her asthma, they certainly wouldn't be driving the underlying inflammatory and tissue injury aspect.”

He accepted that Ella’s anxiety during asthma attacks could have led to the rapid deterioration that led to hospital admissions but “not in any direct way”, adding that he had spent 40 years “pushing back” against theories that psychological conditions can cause asthma.

“The fact that psychological factors play into asthma is hugely important but I wouldn't like anybody to believe that it is part of the underlying driving mechanism of what caused somebody like Ella's asthma in the first place,” he said.

Sir Stephen, who was a member of the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution until it was closed in 2011, heavily criticised Defra and the Department of Health for failing to work together on toxic air.

He said the first time he had seen ministers from the two department working together on the issue in 40 years of experience was in 2019 when the government launched its Clean Air Strategy.

“I think that just illustrates that there is a major change now in recognising that this air pollution discussion isn't just about measurements and legal limits, it's about human exposure, human illness and human suffering,” Sir Stephen said.

Additional reporting by PA

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