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Landmark U.K. coroner's ruling blames air pollution in 9-year-old girl's death

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London — Air pollution "made a material contribution" to the death of nine-year-old London schoolgirl Ella Kissi-Debrah, a U.K. coroner ruled on Wednesday. The landmark ruling is the first time air pollution has been officially listed as a cause of death for anyone in the U.K.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 after suffering severe asthma attacks for three years, her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah told CBS News last year. 

Ella Kissi-Debrah The Ella Roberta Family Foundation

When she died, the cause of her death was determined to be a severe asthma attack leading to respiratory failure. But a report compiled for Kissi-Debrah by Stephen Holgate, the former chair of the U.K. government's advisory committee on air pollution and a professor at Britain's University of Southampton, found that Ella's asthma attacks coincided with years of illegal air pollution levels on a busy street near her home. 

On the basis of that report, Ella's previous cause of death was scrapped and a new coroner's inquest was opened.

"Whilst we are debating, there will be a child who is being rushed to hospital somewhere in the United Kingdom or in the United States or somewhere in the world," Rosamund Kissi-Debrah told CBS News last year. "Now that one truly understands the impact of air pollution, and especially on children's lungs, the picture seems to be so very clear."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution kills around seven million people every year. Children living in poor, urban areas are more likely to suffer from severe asthma than children living elsewhere.

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"Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution," Philip Barlow, the coroner for Ella's south London neighborhood, said on Wednesday. He said that during Ella's life particulate matter levels in her neighborhood were above WHO guidelines and nitrogen dioxide emissions exceeded legal limits.

"The whole of Ella's life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads. I have no difficulty in concluding that her personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide and PM (particulate matter) was very high," he said.

Data from the London Mayor's office show that over two million people in the city are living in areas with illegal levels of air pollution, including over 400,000 children.

"Toxic air pollution is a public health crisis, especially for our children," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement. "Ministers and the previous Mayor have acted too slowly in the past, but they must now learn the lessons from the Coroner's ruling and do much more to tackle the deadly scourge of air pollution in London and across the country," he continued.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah poses for a photograph ahead of the opening of a coroner's inquest in London, November 30, 2020, into the death of her daughter Ella Kissi-Debrah. HOLLIE ADAMS/AFP/Getty

"I wanted justice for her. I wanted the real reason why she went through what she went through for twenty eight months to go on her death certificate. I've now got that," Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said after the ruling on Wednesday. "I hope through this, her legacy, maybe a new Clean Air Act, who knows? But children everywhere who have asthma in this country, whenever there's a spike in air pollution, lots of them go to hospital," she said.

"(Ella) would be very proud that her name is being used to do something really positive... She was incredibly kind, so this is the sort of thing she would approve of."

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