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Ella Kissi-Debrah: Nine-year-old is first person in the UK to have air pollution listed on death certificate

Pollution London.jpg

For the first time ever in the UK, a coroner has ruled that air pollution made a ‘real contribution’ to Ella’s death in 2013

Level: Intermediate


Originally published on 16 December 2020

Air pollution was a factor in the death of a nine-year-old girl with serious asthma, a coroner has ruled.

The verdict means Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah is the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate.

Speaking from Southwark Coroner’s Court in South London, Assistant Coroner Philip Barlow said “air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death”.

Ella lived all her life about 25m from the busy South Circular road in South London, where nitrogen dioxide levels regularly exceeded World Health Organisation and European Union guidelines.


“Ella lived the whole of her life near very busy roads”, Mr Barlow said, concluding her exposure to air pollution was likely “very high”. 

Mr Barlow said the failure of authorities to cut air pollution during Ella’s lifetime “possibly” contributed to her death, as well as the lack of warnings from health professionals of the danger high air pollution posed to Ella.

Ella was diagnosed with a rare and severe form of asthma in 2010 and had to go to hospital 27 times in three years because of it. She died in February 2013, aged nine.

In the inquest, it was reported that scientists had known that air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter were harmful to human health as early as 2005, but those health warnings had not reached the people who were most vulnerable to the threat.

Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother, fought for seven years for the cause of her daughter’s death to be changed to “air pollution”. She says she was never told of the risks to her daughter’s health from traffic fumes. She says she would have taken steps to limit Ella’s exposure to toxic air if she had known the risks.

Speaking after the verdict, Ms Adoo Kissi-Debrah told reporters she was “shocked” at how decisive the verdict was.

She said she hoped the verdict would help raise awareness of the dangers of air pollution, especially for children.

She said there should be a “public awareness campaign” to “teach the population about the damage air pollution is doing”.

Although quality has improved slightly since Ella’s death, levels of pollution in London and other major towns and cities are regularly higher than World Health Organisation limits

The verdict makes Ella the first person in the UK – and likely the world – to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate.

Jocelyn Cockburn, a lawyer from Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors representing the family, said she is working with Ms Adoo Kissi-Debrah and clean air charities on new legislation, known as Ella’s Law, which would set tougher air pollution targets for the UK.  

Article originally published on iNews

New vocabulary:

  • coroner – a person who examines the reason for someone’s death

  • ruled – decided officially

  • made a contribution – plays an important part in making something happen

  • a factor –a cause

  • verdict –decision/conclusion

  • cause of death – official reason for death

  • material – has real importance

  • exceeded – went beyond the limits

  • guidelines – official rules

  • likely – probably

  • posed – caused

  • rare – not common

  • severe – serious

  • particulate matter – pollution

  • as early as – (you can use “as early as” to show that a particular time is surprisingly early)

  • fought – simple past tense of “fight”

  • traffic fumes – pollution from cars and other vehicles

  • raise awareness – bring attention to

  • public awareness campaign – a plan to try and get the public to regonise an issue

  • representing – acting as a lawyer (for the family)

  • legislation – law or laws



Why do you think this ruling is so significant?

What are air pollution laws like in your country?

Pollution vocab
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