It took a deadly London smog 70 years ago to force the then government to take action, we can’t allow today’s less visible air pollution to continue to destroy people’s health

Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi Debrah should have been celebrating her 20th birthday next week. But her life was tragically cut short aged nine when she suffered a fatal asthma attack.

Ella lived with her family near the heavily-congested south circular road in south east London. Following an inquest in 2020, her case made history when she became the first person to have air pollution listed on her death certificate.

The coroner’s ruling was that Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.

There are many rights we have in this country but, astonishingly, the right to breathe clean air is not one of them. Yet our air is filthy and is causing a public health emergency. It’s associated with conditions like asthma, heart disease and cancer and has been shown to impact our mental health too. Those on low incomes and from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds are particularly adversely affected as they’re more likely to live in polluted areas.

In London alone, a third of the population – about 3 million people – live near a busy road.

It’s children who suffer most of all with studies finding an increase in under-16s admitted to hospital for respiratory problems following periods of high air pollution. Shamefully, the UK has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in Europe, with one in 11 children living with asthma.

This is not just a public health scandal, it’s also a huge drain on the public purse. The cost of air pollution could be as much as £20 billion a year with its impact on social care and the NHS.

The Government maintains that its Environment Act is all that’s needed to drive down air pollution. But it has done very little to help. And the targets it set, to reduce levels of PM2.5 to 10 micrograms per cubic metre, is double the WHO’s guideline for healthy air and isn’t expected to be achieved until 2040. To say it lacks ambition is an under-statement.

In the words of the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, “We can and should go further and it is technically possible to do so.”

So what would Ella’s Law do?

First it would set out an entirely new approach to delivering clean air in England. It would enshrine the human right to clean air in English law, transforming decision making by public authorities by requiring them to consider clean air alongside other rights.

It follows a “one air” approach that covers both the health and environmental impacts of air pollutants and greenhouse gases and sets standards, based on advice from the Climate Change Committee and on the WHO’s new air quality guidelines, which would require the Secretary of State to achieve clean air within five years. Postponements for up to a further five years per pollutant would be possible, subject to strict conditions.

The Environment Agency and the CCC would be required to review the pollutants and limits annually and advise the Secretary of State if they needed tightening.

It would also cover indoor air pollution. We saw from the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from extensive mould in his family’s flat how lethal the air we breathe indoors can be. We spend 80 percent of our time indoors, so Ella’s Law would require air quality standards in public spaces where health and safety standards apply, from schools and leisure centres to underground stations.

The Government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan pledged to “leave our environment in a better state than we found it.” There’s no better way to deliver on that commitment than by cleaning up our air.

It took a deadly London smog 70 years ago to force the then Conservative government to take action. We can’t allow today’s less visible air pollution to continue to cut short lives and destroy people’s health.

Caroline Lucas MP

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton, Pavilion, and was first elected in 2010.