Clean air will help us live longer: here’s how we achieve it

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah CBE, Founder of the Ella Roberta Foundation and WHO BreatheLife Ambassador, discusses the important work that is being done to clean up our air.

I didn’t learn the cause of my daughter Ella’s severe asthma until after she passed away. But I will never forget what it did to a child who was born healthy and active: 28 hospitalisations in her last 28 months of life, an induced coma, a blue nebuliser that went everywhere with her. 

She was 9 when she died from a cardiac arrest in 2013. The first inquest into her death gave me a first hint of what had triggered her asthma. “Something in the air.” 

It turns out that that “something” contributes to 7-9 million premature deaths per year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution seeps into every organ of the body, causing asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, infertility, stillbirth, low birthweight, premature birth, and more. Scientists have found black carbon in mothers’ placentas, meaning that babies are absorbing the pollution before they’re even born.

In December 2020, a second coroner’s inquest confirmed it. Unlawful levels of air pollution from the diesel and petrol-fuelled congestion on the South Circular road, near our home in London, had contributed to Ella’s asthma and death. Ella wouldn’t even have developed asthma if not for the illegal levels of air pollution all over Lewisham, he found. 

Ella is the only person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. Yet, a decade later, nine out of 10 children worldwide are still breathing toxic air, and 600,000 are dying every year from respiratory infections caused by it, according to the WHO.

Air pollution is a global pandemic. But it’s a fixable one. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, released a report last year where he urged the government to do more to tackle air pollution. “We can and should go further to reduce air pollution – and it is technically possible to do so,” he said.  We need to eliminate its sources – including diesel and petrol vehicles, coal-fired power plants, wood-burning and construction dust – and lower air quality in line with the WHO’s guidelines for human health. 

This may seem hard, especially in a cost of living crisis. But it will benefit the health of the people, economy, environment and climate. Bringing UK air quality within the WHO’s guidelines would gain 3 million working days (thanks to fewer sick days) and an annual economic boost of £1.6 billion per year, according to CBI Economics.  

How to drive change

We need the political will to make changes now to protect our health and boost our economy. 

Following the second inquest, the coroner decided to publish a prevention of future deaths report. This does not happen with all inquests, so it demonstrates the seriousness of the matter. The report addresses the UK, but it should be a blueprint for governments and health professionals around the world. 

First, set binding air quality targets in line with the WHO guidelines — “as a minimum,” the coroner said. “There is no safe level for particulate matter,” but following the guidelines would reduce the number of deaths. 

Second, raise public awareness. The more people understand about the health impacts of air pollution, the more they will want to reduce their exposure, pressure political leaders to do more, and make changes in their own lives where possible. This requires more extensive air quality monitoring, and for the data to be easily accessible, the coroner said.

Third, health professionals should be trained, from undergraduate institutions through to professional bodies, to inform patients and their carers about the role that air pollution could be playing in their health problems, he found. 

Changes are happening, but not fast enough. In London, harmful pollution had declined by a quarter as of February with the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). Restrictions like ULEZ must be supported with policies to help people adapt, such as scrappage schemes for old cars; safer, cleaner, more affordable public transport; and safer and more extensive walking and cycling infrastructure. 

Now I am working to achieve my ultimate dream: see the UK government pass Ella’s Law – giving us a plan to achieve the WHO’s air quality guidelines and guaranteeing a human right to clean air. 

We can live about two weeks without food, two days without water, and only two minutes without air. The United Nations recognised in 2022 that we all have a human right to a healthy environment. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child affirmed that children have a right to a clean, healthy environment and called on governments to do more. 

A healthy environment inherently includes clean air. Ella grew up in an unhealthy environment, surrounded by diesel and petrol fumes. We owe it to my daughter to hold governments to account and protect children who are still breathing dirty air today.  

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah CBE will be delivering a keynote address at this year’s Transport + Energy Forum. The Ella Roberta Family Foundation support families with asthma, and work to find the cause, cure and prevention of severe asthma in children. This year, the Foundation is the event’s charity partner with money raised on the night going to this important charity. If you would like to donate you can do so via this link:

Image courtesy of Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

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