Stricter air quality limits in line with World Health Organisation guidelines must be set into law to prevent future deaths from air pollution, the government has been told.
The call follows a landmark inquest held in December which concluded that toxic levels of air pollution in London contributed to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.
Ella, who lived close to the busy South Circular Road in south London, died after suffering a severe asthma attack in 2013. She had been admitted to hospital around 30 times in the three years prior as a result of her asthma.
The landmark ruling means that Ella is the first person in the UK, and possibly the world, to have air pollution exposure listed as a cause of fatality on her death certificate.
In a prevention of future deaths report released on Wednesday morning, coroner Philip Barlow said that the government must take action on deadly air pollution by setting stricter targets for particulate matter – tiny particles released by vehicle exhausts and through the burning of fuels that can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled.
“The national limits for particulate matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines,” said Mr Barlow.
“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements.
“Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”
The legal limit for fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) in the UK is currently two and a half times as high as that recommended by experts at the WHO.
Reacting to the report, Ella’s mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, said: “Children are dying unnecessarily because the government is not doing enough to combat air pollution.
“It’s crucial that the UK takes more forceful action to reduce pollution to safe levels – first and foremost, by complying with WHO air quality guidelines.
“I will be contacting George Eustice to ask him to make amendments to the Environment Bill to enshrine WHO limits and to achieve these in the shortest possible time. Health needs to be a major focus in combating air pollution.”
The December inquest into Ella’s death found that she had been exposed to toxic levels of PM2.5 and a second air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), in excess of limits set by the WHO. The principle source of this pollution was road traffic, experts said.
In his prevention of future deaths report, the coroner also called for “more information” to “help individuals reduce their personal exposure to air pollution”.
Air pollution is the UK’s largest environmental health threat and plays a role in between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year, according to official sources.
The coroner said that new measures, including more air quality sensors, should be introduced to help individuals understand the health risks they face from air pollution.
He added that medical professionals must do more to warn patients about the risks posed by toxic pollution levels.
During the inquest, Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said she was not told of the serious dangers posed by air pollution.
“As the parent of a child suffering from severe asthma, I should have been given this information but this did not happen,” she said.
“Because of a lack of information I did not take the steps to reduce Ella’s exposure to air pollution that might have saved her life. I will always live with this regret. But it is not too late for other children.
“I invite the government to act now to reduce air pollution. Immediately. Not in eighteen months, not in five years – that’s not fast enough.”
A government spokesperson said: “Our thoughts continue to be with Ella’s family and friends.
“We are delivering a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and going further in protecting communities from air pollution, particularly PM2.5 which is especially harmful to human health.
“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.”