16 December 2020

Ella Kissi-Debrah’s tragic death shows the urgency of tackling air pollution

By Simon Clarke MP

This year for many people the time we have spent outdoors has been a saving grace, and indispensable for both our physical and mental health. As we exercised and socialised outside, we saw the benefits of clearer skies and cleaner air. This was especially apparent for those with pre-existing conditions. Indeed, the British Lung Foundation found that in one in six adults with asthma or respiratory conditions felt their symptoms improve during lockdown, while one in five children reported improvements.

My constituency, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, also saw a drop in air pollution levels during lockdown due to lower vehicle use. However, as the World Health Organization says, there is no safe level of air pollution and a report from Centre for Cities found that Middlesbrough was one of the UK towns with the highest NO2 (a gas in the air largely produced by burning fuel) emissions per 10,000 inhabitants.

A new report published last week by Breathe GB found that although we have seen recent improvements in air pollution, some of the most popular sports grounds and exercise routes in the UK are still subject to dangerous levels of pollution. Worse still, the report found that many of the illegal levels of air pollution are often found close to the green spaces, parks and training grounds where children play and exercise. This exposure to high levels of air pollution can have long-term impacts on children’s lungs and health, which can make them vulnerable to diseases like coronavirus. 

Breathe GB’s recent findings are timely as the report’s publication coincided with the inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah. Nine-year-old Ella lived near one of London’s busiest roads and tragically suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013, after three years of seizures and breathing problems. Today, the coroner has ruled that air pollution did make a material contribution to Ella’s death. Ella’s case further emphasises the urgent need to reflect and act on the UK’s air pollution to safeguard our nation’s health and ensure no more lives are lost due to dirty air.    

By combating high levels of air pollution in our open, green spaces, the Government can ensure they are healthy and safe for children to play and exercise in. Not only will this directly reduce our children’s exposure to dirty air and limit the health impacts that come with this, it will also promote healthier and more active lifestyles, which can help the Government with its wider health goals. With one in five children living with obesity, accessible and clean outdoor space is vital to encourage exercise.  

Cleaning up our air can also help the Government make huge gains in its levelling up agenda, something I am working passionately to help achieve. In its report, Breathe GB found that air pollution affects poorer households more. By urgently tackling dirty air, the Government can eliminate these unequal and unfair impacts and help uplift communities all over the country. 

With the Environment Bill returning to Parliament for Report Stage soon, MPs will have a chance to debate new laws to tackle air pollution, and the Government can use this once in a generation opportunity to clean up our air for good.

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Simon Clarke is the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.