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Will the end of the coronavirus pandemic herald a new era of claims for air pollution-related injuries?

The Ella Kissi-Debrah inquest

2020 will forever by synonymous with the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst there is the feeling and hope that we are now in the final chapter of the pandemic, there is a potential new category of personal injury claim on the horizon arising from air pollution, which although seemingly unrelated to the pandemic itself, may have been inadvertently contributed to by the same. In the closing weeks of 2020, the first finding in the UK of air pollution contributing to a death was recorded at the inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah. This opens the door to potential claims from existing sufferers of respiratory conditions, and to the families and estates of individuals who have sadly passed away from potential air pollution-related conditions.

Ella Kissi-Debrah

Ella Kissi-Debrah died in 2013 following a severe asthma attack. She had suffered with a rare acute form of asthma which left her susceptible to toxic gases and particles in air pollution. Ella lived a mere 25 metres away from London’s South Circular Road, a road notorious for its excessive levels of air pollution, including nitrogen dioxide, which is known to irritate airways and aggravate respiratory diseases.

An inquest into her death, which took place in December 2020, found that air pollution “…made a material contribution…” to her death. This landmark finding highlights the real possibility that future and indeed even previous deaths may be attributed to the same.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected levels of air pollution across the country? 

Air pollution has been known to be harmful to health for a number of years. In 2010, a House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report estimated that 35,000 premature deaths could be linked to air pollution. Only last year, the CBI estimated that workers take the equivalent of three million sick days per year because of their own health-related problems arising from air pollution, or to care for their sick children suffering with the same.

Whilst it has not been confirmed – and indeed it may not be possible to do the same – what source of air pollution it was that ultimately caused Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death, the inquest highlighted that she lived close to a busy road with a known high level of air pollution.

During the coronavirus pandemic, it was anticipated that levels of air pollution would decrease significantly due to people working from home. Whilst that was initially the case – and indeed in Glasgow, their ability to meet the air quality standards, introduced in the city in 2010, for the first time ever was attributed to the same – as the pandemic has extended into the winter, concerns have been raised that gas burning from boilers of individuals working from home are now offsetting the reduction in emissions from spring 2020. 21% of total nitrogen oxide emissions across Greater London are attributed to gas boilers. And car emissions themselves are believed to be at similar levels to winter 2019, due to those workers still travelling to work being more likely to travel in individual cars rather than on public transport.

As we now move into the third “strict” lockdown of the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether traffic-related pollution drops again; but the increase in gas boiler-related pollution is said to be sufficient to offset the previous two years’ worth of progress on reducing traffic emissions.

The future

It is hoped that we will shortly return to the “normality” which was taken away from us back in March 2020, but with this will also likely be a shift in the types of air pollution that we produce as a society. What the pandemic has shown is that whilst it may be possible to temporarily significantly reduce one type of air pollution, this can in turn temporarily increase others.

With the finding of the Ella Kissi-Debrah inquest, attention will likely turn to those areas which are not complying with the air pollution standards set by the World Health Organization and other scientific bodies. If there is a failure to comply with those standards, there is the potential for personal injury claims to be brought against the organisations responsible for ensuring that those standards are met. And with the ammunition of the recent inquest finding, it may well be that claimant solicitor firms see this as an opportunity to introduce new volume litigation to the market.

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