Air Pollution Killed 9-Year-Old Ella, Finds Landmark Ruling  

The ruling makes 9-year-old Ella the first person in the world for whom air pollution is listed as a cause of death.

3 min read

A UK court has ruled that air pollution was one of the causes of death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi Debrah, making legal history. The ruling makes her the first person in the world for whom air pollution is listed as a cause of death.

Ella lived near a busy road in London with her mother. The Coroner found that air pollution levels near Ella's home exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines, EU lawful limits over the three years prior to her death, and this materially contributed to Ella’s death. They listed traffic emissions as a principal source of exposure in her case.

Meanwhile, here in India, children continue to face the burden of severe air pollution, with over 14 cities in the country among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world.


It was found that failure to reduce the level of NO2 possibly contributed to her death. It will now be stated in Ella’s death certificate that she died from the following causes:

  • Acute respiratory failure
  • Severe asthma
  • Air pollution exposure

Referring to a picture taken shortly before her death, The Coroner said, “It shows someone with very bright brown eyes and a smile that seems to be even larger than the photograph itself. What is clear from everything I’ve read about Ella, is her absolute determination...we have a great many reasons to thank you [Rosamund, Ella's mother] in getting us here.”

Ella’s mother, Rosamund, said that her daughter was taken to hospital about 28 times during her life after suffering acute asthma attacks and seizures. Tragically, they failed to revive her the 29th time when she was rushed to the hospital in 2013.

Speaking about the ruling, Rosamund said,

“Today was a landmark case, a 7-year fight has resulted in air pollution being recognised on Ella’s death certificate. Hopefully this will mean many more children’s lives being saved. Thank you everyone for your continued support.”
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother

Dr Maria Neira, director of environment, climate change and health at the World Health Organization, said the case sets a global president, "Her brave campaign has brought a beautiful human face to the devastation that air pollution causes to millions of lives, all around the world. No city mayor or government minister should be able to say 'we didn’t know'. We all need to fight for clean air, for our children, and for all of us."

How Air Pollution Impacts Children

93 percent of the world’s children under the age of 15 breathe bad air and researchers have found that air pollutants can breach a mother’s placenta and potentially reach fetuses in the womb.

According to the World Health Organization, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by bad air in 2016.

In fact, FIT previously reported on a comprehensive analysis of the global impact of air pollution on newborns revealed that 1.16 lakh children under 1 month died due to external and domestic pollution.

The State of Global Air 2020 report found that more than half of these deaths were linked to outdoor pollution of PM 2.5 and others were linked to using solid fuels such as charcoal, wood and cow dung for cooking. That is why the World Health Organization's 25 measures to clean up poisonous air include giving clean energy options for cooking.

Speaking about the damage done to children's lungs, Dr Arvind Kumar, founder trustee of the Lung Care Foundation and chairman of the Institute of Chest Surgery in India, said,

“By listing air pollution as a cause of Ella’s death, the UK Coroner has made clear that governments around the world, including in India, have an obligation to ensure for children our human right to life, to breathe clean air, and to live in a healthy environment. Governments must step up and protect our youngest generations from suffering the way Ella did.”

(The article was first published in FIT and has been republished with permission)

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