The system’s poisoning of the planet has crossed a morbid threshold, notes Jamal Elaheebocus
For the first time ever in the UK, and possibly in the world, air pollution has been recognised as a cause of death.
A two-week inquiry into the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who had a rare type of acute asthma and died in 2013, found that the failure to reduce pollution levels to legal limits contributed to her death.
Ella lived just 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, South London; it was found that levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted by engines, were above legal limits at a national level and EU level. Particulate matter levels were also above the WHO guidelines.
The inquiry also found that Ella’s mother had not been given sufficient information about the potential for high levels of air pollution to worsen her daughter’s asthma.
This is a landmark verdict but one which should have come a long time ago but one which has been denied to so many other victims. The coroner who ruled on Ella’s case rightly said that the health impacts of air pollution "have been acknowledged for many years".
Not only this, but the role of air pollution in causing premature deaths has been known for over a decade. Back in 2010, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee released a report which found that there were 35,000 premature deaths every year as a result of air pollution.
The role of air pollution as a cause of Ella’s death has been ignored consistently since her death in 2013. The inquest in 2014 into her death only found that Ella’s death was associated with high levels of air pollution, not caused by it. This is despite the fact that, before her death, she had already been admitted to hospital 30 times and had several seizures in the 3 years before her death.
The new inquest was called after new evidence was brought about the levels of pollution in the area where Ella lived. One of the key contributors, Professor Stephen Holgate, described Ella as a canary in a coal mine.
The family rightly argued that the failure of the state to protect the public from dangerous levels of air population was a violation of the Human Rights Act, as it impacted the right to life.
Ella’s death, and the thousands of others linked to high levels of air pollution in Britain, are stark reminders that air pollution is a public health emergency and that the abject failure and refusal by governments over the last few decades to deal with it have had devastating impacts.
The deadly impacts of air pollution have been known since 2000. In 2018, the high court ruled that air pollution levels were not within legal limits and that the government’s air pollution policy was unlawful. They took control of clean air in the UK and told ministers that they must finally draw up an adequate plan to deal with air pollution after the environmental charity Client Earth took the government to court.
Despite this, it has been revealed this week that measures to deal with illegal air pollution are being delayed and ditched completely. After the 2018 court ruling, 37 local authorities were told to develop plans for clean air zones by mid-2019 yet still over half of them have failed to hand over only details and only Bath and Birmingham are introducing zones next year. Bristol, Leeds and Rotherham are looking to avoid introducing these zones completely, supposedly due to lower pollution levels.
After a major drop in air pollution levels during the first national lockdown this year, a study released last week showed that pollution levels are back up to, and in some cases exceeding, pre-Covid levels in cities and towns across the country. This is while the country has still been under restrictions of one form or another so levels could increase further when restrictions are eased further as the vaccine is rolled out.
The ruling this week is a tragic reminder of the devastating impact of the failure of capitalist governments in Britain to take any meaningful action towards reducing air pollution and dealing with the wider climate crisis.
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