Mother of girl who died after asthma attack ‘knew nothing’ about pollution risk

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The mother of a nine-year-old girl who died after an acute asthma attack said she would have moved house immediately had she been told of the link between air pollution and her daughter’s condition.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah told the inner south London coroner that she knew nothing about nitrogen dioxide or air pollution during her daughter’s life.

The coroner Philip Barlow is being asked to rule that air pollution caused the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah on 15 February 2013, a finding that would make legal history. It has never been identified as a cause of death before in the UK and this is thought to be the first case of its kind in the world.

Kissi-Debrah, giving evidence at Southwark coroner’s court in London, said her daughter had been taken to hospital about 28 times during her life after suffering acute asthma attacks and seizures.

The first time she was admitted to hospital was October 2010, and over the next three years Ella’s condition was treated and investigated at six hospitals.

Describing her daughter’s final asthma attack on the night of 14 February 2013, Kissi-Debrah struggled to contain her tears as she said Ella was rushed to hospital, where emergency teams repeatedly tried to resuscitate her.

Hours before that she had read to Ella in bed after the family had eaten a meal together on Valentine’s Day evening. “I had printed off Beethoven’s love letters that day, so that was the last thing I read to her.”

A few hours later her daughter woke and needed her asthma pump. She woke again struggling to breathe and her mother called an ambulance that took her to Lewisham hospital, where her condition deteriorated.

“I begged the consultant – I knew we were in trouble,” her mother said. The consultant “said the situation was not good but they would continue trying”.

But they were unable to save her daughter, she told the inquest. “Not this time.”

Ella was declared dead at 3.27am on 15 February.

The inquest is examining whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death, as well as how toxic air levels were monitored, the steps taken to reduce illegal levels of air pollution and what information was given to the public about reducing exposure.

At the time Ella was alive, her mother said she knew nothing about air pollution. “I had never heard of nitrogen dioxide or anything like that,” she said.

The coroner asked her: “If you had been told during her lifetime that there might be a connection between air pollution levels and her illness, what would you have done?”

Kissi-Debrah replied: “The only thing that I could have done would have been to move. We would have moved straight away because we were desperate for anything to help her, desperate to do anything we could to help.”

The inquest is the second into Ella’s death. It was granted after lawyers for the family presented new evidence to the attorney general that directly linked Ella’s serious form of asthma and her death with the heavy traffic on the South Circular near her home. Her death coincided with one of the worst air pollution surges in her local area.

Kissi-Debrah told the coroner her daughter had been an active, intelligent child, who loved music, singing and swimming. “She was my firstborn … she was a joy, she was the centre of our world.”

Her daughter’s condition began with a repetitive cough, which first became obvious in 2010. By the summer of 2012 Ella had been admitted to hospital nearly 30 times, and had a protocol with the London ambulance service and Lewisham hospital to ensure she was treated rapidly whenever she collapsed or suffered a seizure.

“Sometimes she was good, she would go back to her swimming, back to life as normal but it got to a stage where we were waiting for the next thing to happen.”

In summer 2012 Ella went to the Olympics in London with her mother during one of the better periods. Even so, her mother had to carry her daughter on her back from the tube station to Wembley stadium to watch the Great Britain women’s football team beat Brazil.

Kissi-Debrah said in the years since her daughter’s death her knowledge about air pollution and its links to asthma attacks had become detailed.

She told the hearing that air pollution was a public health emergency and immediate action was needed to help asthma sufferers like her daughter.

“People look at things in the long term, but they need to realise if you have someone who is severely asthmatic, they do not have the time to wait. Ella … she couldn’t wait around for measures to take hold in six months, no, not at all.”

The hearing continues.

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