London mayor Sadiq Khan has been criticised for his plans to build the Silvertown Tunnel after a coroner ruled that air pollution was a cause of death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the nine-year-old girl who suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013.
Ella lived off the South Circular Road on the border of Catford and Hither Green, where traffic is regularly caught in queues. Her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who has been campaigning to have poor air quality listed as a cause of death, today said: “We’ve got the justice for her which she so deserved.”
Campaigners and politicians are now calling for more to be done about London’s air quality, with levels of pollution near Ella’s family home being declared unlawful.
Ella suffered three years of seizures from severe asthma attacks and was admitted to hospital 27 times.
Levels of PM2.5, particles formed by burning fuel and other chemical reactions, were found to be above World Health Organisation guidelines in some London areas by a 2018 report. The particles can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause permanent conditions such as asthma.
The coroner, Philip Barlow, today concluded that toxic air pollution definitively caused Ella’s death, and has opened up the conversation about air quality in London.
Khan welcomed the verdict, calling it a “landmark moment” and addressed the “public health crisis” of toxic air pollution in the capital.
He added: “Today must be a turning point so that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella’s family.Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children, and the inquest underlined yet again the importance of pushing ahead with bold policies such as expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone to inner London. Ministers and the previous mayor have acted too slowly in the past, but they must now learn the lessons from the coroner’s ruling.”
However, Khan has been criticised for his failure to properly tackle air pollution in London, in particular his decision to go ahead with the £2 billion Silvertown road tunnel, which would run under the Thames between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks. Campaigners say his plans would increase pollution in the area.
PM2.5 pollution has become a central issue in the debate surrounding the Silvertown Tunnel, as there is no provision to monitor it once the tunnel opens. Although there are provisions to monitor and mitigate nitrogen dioxide pollution from the Silvertown tunnel, the monitoring period only lasts for three years after the tunnel’s opening. (See the monitoring strategy.)
Victoria Rance, a campaigner with Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, said: “Today I am thinking of Ros Kissi-Debrah and her amazing courage, as a mother and as a human being. We have stood together and spoken out about air pollution, trying to warn people of its dangers.”
Ms Rance continued: “When Sadiq Khan responded to the landmark ruling regarding Ella Kissi-Debrah, he labelled air pollution a ‘public health crisis’ and spoke about PM2.5 pollution as ‘particularly harmful to human health’. So why has he refused to promise to measure PM2.5 pollution in relation to the building of the Silvertown Tunnel, and in the monitoring after it is built?
“Sadiq Khan has just made the case for cancelling the tunnel. By highlighting PM2.5 he has pointed to the very problem that we at Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition have been highlighting in the research we have published.”
Sian Berry, Green Party co-leader and mayor of London candidate, called for “emergency action” to tackle toxic air pollution in London.
Berry said: “History has been made today, and we can finally see a measure of justice for Ella and for her mother Rosamund, who had fought so bravely to bring this case.
“Now we must see emergency action from all levels of government: the prime minister, the mayor and every local council, to eliminate the sources of deadly air pollution.”
Damien Egan, the elected mayor of Lewisham, and Sophie McGeevor, Lewisham Council’s cabinet member for environment and transport released a joint statement.
“Our thoughts are with Rosamund and her family at this very difficult time,” they said. Rosamund’s campaign for clean air has been hugely impactful both locally and nationally in bringing awareness to the dangers of air pollution.
“We support her in continuing this fight and will do everything we can to enact and call for change – working with the Government and Transport for London to try to reduce the impact of traffic and air pollution on our community.
“Our hope is that today’s ruling is the evidence needed to effect lasting change, to finally secure a national commitment to tackling air pollution in a meaningful way,” they said.
Additional reporting by Gráinne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham
Joe Talora is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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