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4 December 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 1:09pm

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah and the Great Smog of modern London

Nearly 70 years on from the Great Smog of London, air pollution still haunts Britain’s environmental efforts – and its most deprived places.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Nicu Calcea

On this date 68 years ago, a thick fog was about to descend on London. From Friday 5 December to Tuesday 9 December 1952, a dense layer of smog smothered the capital during a particularly cold spell of weather.

Pollutants in the air from the burning of coal, combined with an anticyclone, collected into a toxic haze. Londoners couldn’t see further than a metre in front of them. Public transport was brought to a standstill, and ambulances could not transport people to hospital. Mortality levels were higher than usual months after what is now known as the Great Smog. It is estimated to have killed 12,000 people.

This devastation led four years later to the Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation designed to reduce air pollution. Although it shifted household heating methods to cleaner energy sources, the concentration of polluted air reached the same level as the Great Smog a year after the act was passed, and a similar choking fog hit London and spread throughout Britain in 1962.

The fight against air pollution has progressed since those murky days. Yet air pollution is still thought to kill between 28,000 and 36,000 people in the UK every year, and 60 per cent of people in England are living with illegal levels of air pollution.

Saturday 5 December is commemorated as “Smog Day”, the anniversary of London’s Great Smog. This year, it falls amid an inquest into the death of nine-year-old south Londoner Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived 30 metres from the busy South Circular road and died in 2013 after a severe asthma attack following three years of seizures and hospital admissions.

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The initial inquest ruling in 2014 – that her cause of death was acute respiratory failure – was quashed when new evidence of dangerous levels of air pollution near her home emerged. If the coroner concludes on this occasion that this environment directly contributed to her death, it will be the first time anyone in the UK has had air pollution on their death certificate.

At the time of writing, the inquest has heard that successive London mayors’ efforts to reduce emissions were “frustrated” by the government, and that the capital is unlikely to meet its legally binding limit on nitrogen oxide emissions until at least 2025. Lewisham’s head of environmental health said the toxic air in the borough should have been treated as a public health emergency prior to Ella’s death, and Lewisham Council has been accused of reacting at a “glacial pace”.

Professor Stephen Holgate, a leading asthma and air pollution expert and government adviser, originally contacted Ella’s family in 2015 over his suspicions about her death. Analysing pollution monitors close to the family home, Professor Holgate drew a link between Ella’s illness and the levels of toxic gases and harmful particles in the atmosphere. Lewisham was enshrouded in an invisible, poisonous mist on the night of her death.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s story has become a rallying point for clean air campaigners and those highlighting the social injustice of poisonous environments. Her mother, Rosamund, is a health and air quality advocate for the World Health Organisation and is vocal on environmental issues in her home borough of Lewisham, south London.

When I spoke to Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah for a report on traffic interventions last month, she warned passionately against condemning more deprived parts of her neighbourhood – such as that by the South Circular, where her family still live – to suffer from higher levels of air pollution.

[See also: Low-traffic neighbourhoods: How the culture wars came to a street near you]

Indeed, New Statesman analysis of the Consumer Data Research Centre air quality index – a metric that shows the combined levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM10) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air – reveals that people living in Britain’s poorest communities are breathing in significantly more polluted air.

The data, which estimates the air quality in communities of up to 1,500 people in England and Wales and up to 1,000 people in Scotland, shows how air pollution is lowest in the top 10 per cent least deprived areas (on the right of the graphic below) while the most deprived areas (on the left) have the most polluted air.


This pollution may lead to health issues in the future. Figures collected by the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership show that clinical commissioning groups serving England’s poorest areas receive a higher rate of emergency asthma admissions compared to less deprived areas.


“Nearly 70 years on from the Great Smog of London, the skies above the UK haven’t cleared,” says Andrew Simms, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance and co-director of the New Weather Institute, which created Smog Day as an annual day of remembrance.

“It’s often said that pollution doesn’t respect borders, but it does concentrate disproportionately where working-class and people on low incomes live,” he says. “Not only are poorer people more likely to have to live in more polluted places – by busy roads or industrial areas – but poverty undermines their health, making them more vulnerable to pollution.”

In 1952, you were much more likely to die if you were already in ill health, and “today you are still more likely to have ill health if you are poor”, Simms adds.

While the cause of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death will be decided by the coroner’s court, there are decisions the government could take today to clean up our air. For example, it still needs a coherent strategy to reduce car usage – something undermined by spending £27bn on building 4,000 miles of new road while announcing just £4bn of new spending for its green industrial strategy.

The government’s announcement in November that it would ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 – ten years earlier than planned – was diluted by the continued sale of plug-in hybrids until 2035: cars that have been labelled a “con” by Transport & Environment UK, after analysis found they emit two and a half times more carbon dioxide than shown in lab tests. 

More broadly, Boris Johnson’s environmental ambitions – such as the latest commitment to cut UK carbon emissions by at least 68 per cent of their 1990 level by the end of 2030 – are undermined by the struggle to meet existing targets. For example, the government is set to exceed its fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

“Half of the cars on the UK’s roads are diesel cars, compared to 20 per cent in other European countries. Thirty-eight out of 40 regions in the country have breached the World Health Organisation’s air quality guidelines,” declared a piece by Professor Holgate in 2016. “We are losing the battle against pollution.”

[See also: Why clean energy should be at the heart of post-Covid-19 stimulus plans]

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