In 2020, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah made history as the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a contributing factor in her death. A fatal asthma attack claimed her life at just nine years old, prompting her mother, Rosamund, to campaign for a second inquest. This inquiry revealed that the heavy traffic near their home in Lewisham, south-east London, had led to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions exceeding EU and UK standards. It also found that dangerous particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) in the air had surpassed World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
The Deputy Coroner Philip Barlow determined that “air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbations of her asthma,” and underscored that the delay in reducing atmospheric air pollution leads to avoidable deaths. He also highlighted the shortage of air quality monitors as a contributing factor to public ignorance about this invisible threat.
Since then, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has expanded its air pollution monitoring network, increasing the number of sites from 424 in 2020 to 555 across the UK. These sites monitor various hazardous pollutants, including NO2, sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), and PM2.5 and PM10. Defra utilizes these networks to generate daily air quality forecasts on its UK-Air website.
However, despite these improvements, experts like Professor Alastair Lewis from York University’s National Centre for Atmospheric Studies caution that public air quality monitoring systems have not significantly evolved over the past three decades. He notes that while measurements for some pollutants are readily available, others, such as PM2.5 composition, remain more challenging and costly to assess. Prof. Lewis emphasizes that PM2.5 is the pollutant responsible for the most significant economic health damage at a population level.
To address these concerns, Defra has committed to investing over £10 million to double the size of its PM2.5 monitoring network. It aims to enhance policy interventions and meet stricter targets for this harmful pollutant under the Environment Act.
Sarah Woolnough, the CEO of Asthma + Lung UK, stresses the importance of accurate, real-time monitoring data for individuals with lung conditions. This data enables them to make informed daily decisions to minimize exposure to air pollution and protect their health. Woolnough also advocates for more widespread, consistent, and balanced air pollution monitoring across the country, particularly in urban areas, pollution hotspots, schools, hospitals, and care homes. She calls on the government to collaborate with local authorities to ensure equitable access to monitoring networks for all communities.