020 7650 1200


Air pollution is causing serious harm – it is time for the world to take action

Charlotte Armstrong, from the international team, discusses the harm air pollution is causing and why it is time for the world to take action

Posted on 21 May 2019

Just weeks after the High Court granted a new inquest be held into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the nine-year-old schoolgirl who died of an asthma attack thought to be linked to illegal levels of air pollution near her south London home, a damning new review on the detrimental effects of air pollution on the human body has come to light. 

The comprehensive global review, carried out by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee, shows that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. 

The review explains how this systematic damage is the result of pollutants causing inflammation and ‘oxidative stress’ in the lungs which, in turn, sets off a cascade of biological events which can detrimentally affect distant organs. In addition to this, while air pollution hits the lungs first, ultrafine pollutant particles can be readily picked up by cells and carried around the entire body by the bloodstream. 

As a result, the review evidences harm which is far wider than the respiratory conditions often associated with air pollution, from stunting lung growth to increasing the risk of diabetes, dementia, liver problems, bladder cancer, brittle bones, damaged skin, miscarriage and reducing fertility.  

The review also highlights how children and vulnerable populations are most at risk of being harmed by air pollution. 

The Scale of the Problem

The World Health Organization has branded air pollution a “public health emergency” with more than 90% of the global population enduring toxic outdoor air. 

In the UK, most urban areas have illegal levels of air pollution and ministers have lost three times in the high court after legal challenges over the inadequacy of their action. The latest government action plan revealed air pollution was actually much worse than previously feared.

In Ella’s case, new evidence from pollution expert Professor Stephen Holgate found that air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death. The family believe air pollution should be cited as a cause of Ella’s death, a step which could open the door to more cases against the authorities for failing to tackle the air pollution problem here in the UK. 

Developing Countries

New analysis has also indicated that air pollution causes 8.8 million early deaths each year, a figure which is nearly double earlier estimates and one which makes air pollution a bigger killer than tobacco smoking.

The majority of these deaths occur in developing nations where there is usually a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.  South Africa, for example, relies on coal to create almost 90% of its primary energy. The region of Mpumalanga in the north east of the country is unfortunate enough to house the majority of South Africa’s coal-fired power stations which are all operated by the state-owned company, Eskom. Mpumalanga has been voted one of the world’s most polluted regions. 

Despite using the least energy, it is the people in the poorest regions who appear to pay the highest price.  Emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations are reported as causing a staggering 2,239 deaths per year in South Africa with children particularly susceptible to the onset of bronchitis and asthma. 

Eskom has recently applied for further postponements which would allow the company’s power-stations to continue to exceed the minimum emission standards set by the South African government. As Eskom delays taking further action, ordinary people living near the power stations continue to breathe polluted air.


Charlotte Armstrong
Corporate accountability

Charlotte Armstrong

Charlotte Armstrong is a senior associate solicitor in the international department.