By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


In December 2020, Southwark Coroner’s Court passed a landmark ruling. Coroner Philip Barlow concluded that air pollution had made a ‘material contribution’ to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who passed away in 2013. Ella became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate.  

Ella’s legacy, her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah hopes, will be a change in the law around air pollution. Rosamund, and other environmental campaigners, are calling on the government to introduce Ella’s Law; legislation that would reduce the target levels of particulate matter pollution (tiny solid or liquid particles suspended in the air), in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines.

This is because sadly, while Ella’s death may be the first in the UK to have been officially recognised as caused by air pollution, she is far from alone. Air pollution causes up to 36,000 deaths in the UK each year and, in 2015, a study by the Global Burden of Diseases found that air pollution is the fifth-ranking risk factor for death worldwide.  

Children are more susceptible to breathing in polluted air as they breathe more rapidly and their lungs are still developing. In 2017, the WHO estimated that air pollution was responsible for the deaths of 600,000 children under five around the world.  

It is shocking figures like these that environmental charity Global Action Plan hopes to combat with Clean Air Day, the UK’s largest air pollution campaign, taking place this year on 17 June. Clean Air Day brings together communities, schools, businesses and health sector to raise awareness of the impact of air pollution and come up with effective ways to tackle it for a cleaner future.

What is air pollution and what causes it?

Air pollution is caused when there is a disruption to the natural chemical balance of the air that we breath, due to a presence of pollutant particles and gas. There are several different substances which human activity introduce into the air which can be harmful to our health and the environment, including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides and ammonia.

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia, which reacts with the atmosphere and converts to particulate matter in the air, both pose serious health risks. Long term exposure can increase the likelihood of respiratory conditions, exacerbate bronchitis and asthma and even cause lung cancer. Burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of NOx emissions, with road transport causing 34% of emissions, while agricultural processes account for 87% of ammonia emissions in the UK.

While CO2 can cause respiratory problems in high quantities, an imbalance of it in the air is a more serious threat to our climate. CO2 is a greenhouse gas; its heat-trapping qualities contribute significantly to global warming. 87% of human-produced CO2 emissions are the result of burning fossil fuels and 10% is caused by deforestation.

What can we do?

Clearly, things need to change. The current pattern of human behaviour causing dangerous chemical imbalances in the air is affecting 92% of the world’s population. Dr Maria Neira from the WHO told The Guardian that air pollution is “a global public health emergency”.

Cutting down on unnecessary car journeys and meat and dairy intake are concrete ways individuals can help to combat air pollution, road transport and agriculture being two of the biggest culprits. Planting trees and other greenery to help absorb CO2 and opting for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power are also great, proactive ways to fight air pollution.

It’s vital that children also understand the causes and dangers of air pollution, so that they can make eco-friendly choices as they become young adults.

To this end, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science recently commissioned a children’s story for 7-11 year-olds, Grandma’s Footsteps, written by Patrice Lawrence, which encourages children to think about what the future might look like if we don’t take action now on air pollution. The story follows young Hy Knowshole who lives Etherley, a dome which protects the citizens from the polluted air outside. Etherley was built by Hy’s ancestors after their great-great-great-grandmother left her home when the pollution became too dangerous to live in. When the citizens of Etherley begin creating holes in the dome to access natural sunlight again, problems quickly arise, so Hy sets of on an adventure to find the solution. It’s a thought-provoking read for any young person hoping to learn more about the dangers in our air.

Air pollution is one of the most serious threats to global public health, but there is hope for a cleaner future. Pollution rates dropped significantly during COVID-19 lockdowns, which were of course exceptional circumstances that we hope not to return to, but it shows that changes in human behaviour can have a huge impact, and are achievable. Educating the next generation on cleaner living habits and renewable energy sources is the key.