A London coroner who found that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a nine-year-old girl has called on the UK government to introduce legally binding limits on certain dangerous pollutants to prevent future deaths.
Philip Barlow, assistant coroner at London’s Inner South Coroner’s Court, said on Wednesday that the national limits for particulate matter — fine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and contribute to a host of diseases, including cancer — were “set at a level far higher than the World Health Organization guidelines”, and should be brought in line with its guidance.
“Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK,” said Barlow as he published his recommendations on Wednesday following the inquest he led into the 2013 death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the capital’s busy South Circular Road.
He added that there was “no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements”.
Barlow also recommended that medical professionals and the government work to educate patients and the public about the risks associated with air pollution.
His landmark verdict in December is thought to be the first time air pollution has been listed as a medical cause on a death certificate anywhere in the world. During Ella’s lifetime, he ruled, “there was a recognised failure to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide to limits set within EU law which possibly contributed to her death”.
Many places in the UK have regularly breached nitrogen dioxide pollution levels set by EU law in 2010. The limits on the noxious gas, which is linked to respiratory illnesses and contributes to global warming, have been adopted into UK law as part of the Brexit process.
The government’s long-awaited 2019 environment bill proposed the setting of wider, legally binding targets for air quality. But it stopped short of specifying how strict the targets should be or whether they would be in line with WHO guidance.
The government is not obliged to follow Barlow’s advice, but must respond to his recommendations within 56 days — by June 17. The response must outline what action ministers plan to take and by when, or explain why they do not intend to act.
“In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken,” said Barlow.
Katie Nield, lawyer at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “Toxic air is clearly not going to disappear on its own. The government needs to get its act together and explain what more it is going to do prevent lives like Ella’s being cut short.”
Geraint Davies, Labour MP and chair of the all party parliamentary group on air pollution, urged the government to act. “Let the tragic case of Ella be transformed into an opportunity to save thousands of other children from early death by enforcing air pollution limits.”
He said the COP26 international climate summit that the UK is set to host later this year presented “a historic opportunity for the UK to take leadership in confronting the global annual air pollution death toll”.
The government said: “Through our landmark environment bill, we are also setting ambitious new air quality targets, with a focus on reducing public health impacts. We will carefully consider the recommendations in the report and respond in due course.”