Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is a clean air pioneer. She is a Breathelife Ambassador (CACC, UNEP, World Bank and WHO), and also an Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association. Her daughter, Ella, died at the age of nine of a severe asthma attack. After a landmark legal case, Ella is the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. 

By Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah

When my daughter Ella died in 2013, she had one of the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK. However, we didn’t know what her triggers were. The first inquest into her death concluded they were to do with “something in the air”, but air pollution wasn’t mentioned.

We know more about the risks of air pollution

Over the last nine years, things have changed. People have begun to understand air pollution and care about its effects. Now, we know that nine out of ten children worldwide are breathing in dirty air. Some 600,000 children under five years old die every year from respiratory tract infections caused by air pollution. In total, seven million people die prematurely every year from the health impacts caused by air pollution compared to one-third from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease.

This increase in scientific and medical research has established the detrimental impact air pollution has on human health. It has also meant the World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised its guidelines from 2005 are not strong enough. Their bolder 2021 guidelines are based on “a much stronger body of evidence to show how air pollution affects different aspects of health at even lower concentrations than previously understood”. They now compare air pollution to tobacco or an unhealthy diet, in terms of health risk.

This increase in scientific knowledge has been accompanied by an increase in public awareness, partly helped by the second inquest into Ella’s death in December 2020, which found that air pollution was “a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbations of her asthma”. 

Recommendations for Government

Science and public awareness combined in April 2021, when the Coroner published the Prevention of Future Deaths Report in response to the inquest. He recommended that air pollution limits should be based on the science:

The WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.

When the Coroner’s report came out, the Government assured me that they would take his recommendations into account when setting air pollution limits. Sadly, this has not been the case.

The Government proposes to meet the WHO guidelines set in 2005, rather than the 2021 guidelines. And rather than meet the guidelines now, the Government has suggested they be implemented in 2040, 35 years after they were written.

Tackling air pollution has plenty of benefits

Ministers say we have made the case for health. But my frustration is, I don't think they are listening. Although I am campaigning for the adoption of the 2021 guidelines, even meeting the 2005 guidelines by 2030 will have a hugely positive impact on health.

Research from Imperial College London shows that implementing the 2005 guidelines by 2030 will lead to:

  • 3,600 fewer respiratory hospital admissions 
  • 3,100 fewer cases of coronary heart disease 
  • 20 fewer infant deaths 

The value of the total benefits gained is more than £380 billion. 

The Environment Act public consultation

The Pathway to Healthy Air in the UK report models the continued implementation of existing policies aimed at reducing air pollution (including the transition to electric vehicles). They conclude that the health and productivity benefits far outweigh the costs incurred, and that achieving the WHO 2005 guidelines by 2030 is very much affordable and realistic with current plans and policies.

If you want the Government to listen to the latest research on air pollution, and commit to setting targets to reduce the dangers it poses, complete the public consultation.

This is open until Monday 27 June 2022

*This article was amended on Monday 9 May 2022 in response to the Government making the technical papers around the consultation available.

Share your views on air pollution via the online public consultation tool

Find out more about The Ella Roberta Family Foundation

Read our blog marking Clean Air Day from 2021