Ella Kissi-Debrah was killed by breathing polluted air. Photograph: Ella Roberta Family Foundation Ella Kissi-Debrah was killed by breathing polluted air. Photograph: Ella Roberta Family Foundation

WHO set to update air pollution guidelines

The World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed that it will soon issue new guidelines on air pollution limits, while the government continues to mull adopting the existing ones.

The new recommendations will be published in early July, according to Maria Neira, director of public health, environmental and social determinants of health at the body. She was speaking at a press conference yesterday that followed the release of a coroner’s ‘prevention of future deaths’ report into the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the nine year old girl whose death in 2013 has now been attributed to breathing dirty air.

Neira would not be drawn on what exactly will emerge, though she is “sure that it will move in the right direction” – a clear hint that the gap between the guidelines and the standards that apply in the UK will grow even further (see table below). The guidelines were last updated in 2005, since when much has changed in the public’s awareness of air pollution, government policy and scientific knowledge.

Ella’s mother and air pollution campaigner Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah told the conference that environment secretary George Eustice said that he was considering inserting the existing WHO limits into the Environment Bill, but had been waiting for the coroner’s report.

The coroner said that they should be set in law, a recommendation that DEFRA said it will “carefully consider” and respond to in due course.

Asked how she would react if the bill remained as it is, she said: “I can’t contemplate it… basically means people will continue to die and we do nothing.” Not doing so ahead of COP26 would be “an embarrassment”, she added.

“I could not agree more” said respiratory specialist professor Sir Stephen Holgate, who played a key role in the fight to obtain a new death certificate for Ella. “It is possible to do – it’s just the will in doing it,” that is in question, he said.

One of the reasons for the campaign’s success was the relatively high concentration of monitoring stations around Ella’s home. This needs to be replicated across urban Britain, he said, using “affordable and reliable” technology “so that people… can actually know what they are breathing in”, avoiding reliance on distant monitors and computer modelling.

Reflecting the coroner’s own recommendations, he said that “a lot more has to be done” to educate medical professionals about the impact of air pollution, having had to teach himself about the issue.

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