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Boris Johnson ‘didn’t take pollution seriously’ ahead of child’s death

Nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah died after being exposed to air pollution levels far exceeding WHO guidelines, a south London coroner found.

The mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, has accused Boris Johnson of not taking air pollution seriously when he was Mayor of London at the time of her daughter’s death.

In an interview with The Big Issue following the landmark ruling, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said the lack of action from the mayor’s office was “unforgiveable” when Ella was sick.

Ella was nine years old when she died of acute respiratory failure in 2013, having spent her childhood living a stone’s throw from the busy South Circular road in Lewisham, south London.

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Johnson delayed the expansion of London’s low emission zone in 2010, the inquest was told, the year Ella first started suffering from severe asthma attacks. 

A school photo of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah
Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at school. Image credit: Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah

Coroner Philip Barlow ruled that Ella was consistently exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines, pollutants that ultimately both induced and exacerbated her condition. 

“The extent to which they knew and did nothing about it is unforgivable really,” Rosamund told The Big Issue, “but people will have to question themselves about what they did or didn’t do.”

The Big Issue has asked Boris Johnson’s office for comment.

Mr Johnson has used the first year of his premiership to pledge a green revolution and to improve air quality by phasing out polluting vehicles. 

“They are just soundbites to me,” Rosamund added. “They don’t mean anything. Because when I look out on my road or in my neighbourhood, nothing has changed. I would need to meet with him if he wants to meet with me, maybe he doesn’t.

“He didn’t take it seriously when he was mayor of London did he? Maybe he’s a different man now. We’ll see.”

A report released in October found air pollution in the capital has fallen dramatically since 2016, when Sadiq Khan replaced Johnson as mayor, with a 94 per cent drop in the number of people living with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

But almost a quarter of inner London roads still record nitrogen oxide levels above the legal limit, the report’s authors said, and 99 per cent of London has levels of particle pollution above the WHO’s guidelines.

Rosamund now wants to cement her daughter’s legacy with a new Clean Air Act, one she hopes will make the “invisible killer visible” and prevent families having to endure the pain suffered by hers, something she “would not wish on a worst enemy”.

Read the full interview with Rosamund Kissi-Debrah.