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A 9 Year Old Died From Asthma — Her Death Was Most Likely Caused By Air Pollution

The story of a young girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who was 9 when she died, is one of heartbreak. Her death took place in 2013, and she died from something that I have — asthma.

The story of a young girl, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who was 9 when she died, is one of heartbreak. Her death took place in 2013, and she died from something that I have — asthma. Her family lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, which is in the southeastern part of London. Years later, in 2018, a report found that unlawful levels of pollution likely contributed to Kissi-Debrah’s death. Her mother, Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah, requested a new inquest and said that her daughter was “the center of our world.” She also said that “moving would have been the first thing” her family would have done if they’d have known how toxic the air was — so toxic that simply breathing it killed their daughter.

Ms. Kissi-Debrah told the inquest that she knew of car fumes but had never heard of nitrogen oxides (NOx) which is one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. Since she didn’t know about this, the thought of moving never even came up in conversations with her daughter’s doctor. Today, she has branded air pollution “a public health emergency,” and is demanding more education about its dangers.

Ella was first rushed to the hospital in 2010 after a coughing fit, and wound up being admitted 27 times. By the end of summer 2012, Ella was classified as disabled and Ms. Kissi-Debrah often had to carry Ella by piggyback to get her around. On the day before Ella died, her mother said that Ella was “screaming” as she left in the ambulance. “When I saw her in the ambulance I knew she was going to have a seizure, she was so bad,” she said. She described the doctors’ efforts to resuscitate Ella on the night of her death. “They tried and they tried and they tried.”

In 2014, an inquest that focused on Ella’s medical care concluded that her death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma. However, the 2018 report said that Ella’s death was most likely due to the unlawful levels of pollution that were detected at a monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home.

Scientist Says Air Pollution Wasn’t The Cause, But A 2018 Study Shows Something Else Entirely

Although the article stated that there was an ongoing hearing, The Guardian reported just yesterday that the new inquest found that there was no link between Ella’s hospital admissions and higher pollution. Paul Wilkinson, a leading scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told a coroner that he’d analyzed the levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter on the days during Ella’s lifetime and that there was no evidence to support the theory that her death was caused by air pollution. “It doesn’t exclude the fact that air pollution may have been a contribution to some degree but it wasn’t a very determining effect,” said Wilkinson.

However, another 2018 study shows the opposite.

This study surveyed over 2,000 children in London and found that the city’s air pollution was restricting their lung development. The study, which was led by Queen Mary University of London, King’s College of London, and the University of Edinburgh, can be found here.

Children who were exposed to diesel-dominated air pollution in London had poor lung capacity, and this puts them at risk of lifelong breathing disorders. The study noted that over 2,000 children aged 8 to 9 years old participated from 28 primary schools in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich, and the City of London, and all of these areas fail to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits.

The study took place over a period of five years and covered the period when London’s Low Emissions Zone (LEZ) was introduced. Some of the key findings from this study are:

  • Children exposed to air pollution had smaller lung volume — a 5% loss in lung capacity.
  • After London’s LEZ was implemented, there were small improvements in NO2 and NOx but none in particulate matter (PM10).
  • There was no evidence of a reduction in the proportion of children with small lungs or asthma over this period — even with the introduction of LEZ.
  • Following the LEZ introduction, the percentage of children living in the addresses exceeding the EU limit for NO2 fell, but they were still exposed to higher levels while at school.
  • Significant areas of inner and outer London still remain above the EU NO2 limit.

What An Asthma Attack Feels Like

When I was diagnosed with asthma at 14, I was literally healthy one day and dead a few days later. Unlike Ella, I was resuscitated. I spent around four weeks in the hospital and woke up with temporary amnesia — my brain had gone around 3 minutes without oxygen. I was excessively bullied by classmates and even my high school English teacher who used to make fun of me in the class whenever I had to use my inhaler. I also had severe PTSD and would pass out from fear of not being able to breathe — that’s how bad asthma was for me after my recovery. My first two years had well over 100 hospital visits and a few admissions as well.

I’m sharing this because Ella’s story hits home for me. To this day, I don’t really have all of my memories back. But I do remember what it’s like to have an asthma attack, and for those of you who have the blessing of not having any type of lung disease — whether it’s asthma, COPD, or even cancer — you may think that the idea of not being able to breathe was silly. Or maybe someone is exaggerating it for attention — that’s what I was often accused of when I literally couldn’t breathe.

For me, it starts with a cough that is in my throat, and as I cough, it gets harder to breathe. When you realize that you can’t breathe, that’s when the fear sets in and you start gasping — panicking. Sometimes I would grab my throat because it would feel like there was something in my throat while there was nothing there. Along with all of these feelings is a sense of helplessness that leaves you terrified while struggling to get oxygen into your lungs. The physical sensation is this tightness in your chest — like your lungs are being squeezed and the harder you try to breathe, the harder it is to breathe, and there’s nothing you can do. In my situation, add in the bullying, taunting, and jeers of classmates as they watched me gasp for air while calling me “breathless.”

I know now that many of them acted this way because they were encouraged by my teacher who fully believed I was faking it — it’s hard to fake an oxygen level of 89%. Normal is 94–100%, and when I was first diagnosed, my oxygen level was in the 70s. I can’t remember the exact number, but think my mother said it was 78% or somewhere in there. In my case, when they brought me back and put me on oxygen, my levels raised and I wasn’t incubated.

I’m sharing this with you because, again, Ella’s story is moving and many will look at her story and not understand or even relate. And relating is the most important thing because if you are emotionally connected, then this motivates you to want to do something, whether it’s switch to a cleaner vehicle or advocate for clean energy. Perhaps you’ll think twice about blowing second-hand smoke in a stranger’s face if you know that it could kill them — my mother chain-smoked and the doctors said it was likely the trigger for my own asthma.

Whether or not officials will admit to the fact that air pollution is a major trigger for asthma will not change the fact that Ella lost her life — by breathing toxic air. If scientists can all agree on the fact that NOx and NO2 are bad, that they kill and lead to diseases such as asthma, then surely they can see the link that is present.

Featured image courtesy LEVC

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