A tragedy in the air

The tragic death of a London schoolgirl could provide greater awareness of the dangers of poor air quality. It may also be the catalyst for significant change.

When nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah passed away in 2013, doctors initially listed cause of death as respiratory failure as a result of severe asthma. In fact, Kissi-Debrah had the severe asthma attacks for three years leading up to her death. Her mother, however, wanted to get a better understanding of the reason behind the attacks. She assembled a team to determine the root causes.

Hidden killer

“When she was alive, we couldn’t get to the bottom of what was triggering her asthma. I thought I would give it my best shot (to find out), as her mother, although she’s no longer here,” Rosamund Kissi-Debrah told CBS News. “I didn’t have any plans or any ideas what I was going to find out. All I knew was it was to do with something in the air.”

Unlawful levels of pollution

What the team found: Ella’s asthma attacks dovetailed with incidences of high air pollution levels around her home. So much so, that the High Court in the UK rescinded the original autopsy finding, allowing for a new inquest into the cause of death. According to a report developed by a professor at the University of Southampton, “There is a real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution Ella would not have died.” And so, there is a potential that the schoolgirl may be the first person in history to have her cause of death listed as “air pollution.”

The listing provides ample opportunity for environmentalists to call attention to dangerous levels of air pollution. London is known as a pollution hotspot. The city often reaches critical levels of air pollution and exceeds pollution limits set by law. In addition, the attention on this tragic death may be used as a motivating factor to bring more companies in line and reduce pollution levels.