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Rosamund Kissi-Debrah: ‘The air that she loved was killing my daughter’

Rosamund 's daughter Ella died after years of exposure to air pollution. She tells The Big Issue what needs to happen next.
Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at school. Image credit: Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah made history this week. 

Her seven-year fight has ensured the deadly impact of car fumes and dirty air is no longer seen as a throwaway statistic, but has a human face and name.

That face, seen by millions in pictures with a beaming smile, is that of her nine-year-old daughter Ella, who has become the first person in the UK – and possibly the world – to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. 

On Wednesday a coroner ruled that Ella was consistently exposed to levels of pollutants in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines near her south London home, pollutants that ultimately both induced and exacerbated her severe form of asthma. 

The historic decision caps a long and traumatic journey for Rosamund and her family in their search for answers since Ella’s death in 2013, culminating in an emotional few hours inside a south London coroner’s court on Wednesday morning. 

“I just looked at my children and we nodded at each other,” she tells The Big Issue, describing the moment the coroner’s verdict was delivered. 

“We didn’t say much. Just looked at each other before my daughter whispered, ‘We’ve won Mum’, and I just nodded away. I guess we have.”

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah and her three children
Credit - Claire Cox
Rosamund with her three children

Rosamund said she “felt lighter” waking up the next morning in the knowledge that her daughter’s death certificate now states the reason she has always believed her life was brutally cut short. 

“Goodness me it has taken its toll, but I believed in it so much and what happened to her, she deserved to have the right reason down there and not just respiratory failure – she deserved a lot more than that.

“Everyone now knows and she isn’t the only one either.”

The last few years of Ella’s life were blighted by seizures and severe respiratory difficulties, forcing nearly 30 admissions to hospital before her death in the early hours of 15 February 2013.

An original inquest concluded that Ella died from severe respiratory failure, making no mention of any environmental factors. 

But after establishing a foundation in her daughter’s memory to improve the lives of children with asthma, new evidence emerged linking Ella’s illness with pollution levels near her home, 25 metres from the heavily congested South Circular in Lewisham, south London. 

Her bedroom was blue, it represented the sky, she had planes on the wall. That air that she loved was killing her

With the help of a leading human rights lawyer and public health experts, the original verdict was quashed and a fresh inquest ordered. 

The result of the second hearing could not have been more different; the verdict repaid Rosamund’s remarkable resilience, something acknowledged by Coroner Philip Barlow at the conclusion. 

“He [the coroner] said to me about Ella’s smile and then he said, ‘she seemed very determined, I wonder where she gets that from?’”

The 10-day inquest was filled with not only harrowing evidence of the damage traffic fumes inflicted on Ella’s young lungs, but also what those in power at the time did or did not do to help. This included the current prime minister. 

Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, 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. 

“I took a deep breath,” Rosamund said, recalling when she heard the evidence for the first time. “Every time these things come up you can imagine they make me angry but I wasn’t going to let that take over everything.

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

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

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, 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.”

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”.

She wants health professionals to campaign on air pollution with the same vigour as they did smoking and a comprehensive public awareness campaign to ensure parents are properly informed of the dangers, in a way she was not when Ella first fell ill.

“Not everyone can afford to move. But if they can take a back route to go to school then that will be better. It might be a bit longer and they might have to leave a bit earlier, but if they truly understood the damage, it was doing to them and their children.” 

She urged people not to underestimate the health risks and to fight for the right to breathe the same cleaner air brought about by severe coronavirus restrictions earlier in the year. 

“We all appreciated the cleaner air during lockdown. I don’t know one person who didn’t enjoy it but the question is what are we prepared to give up as a nation to get as close as possible to that?”

The end of this part of her journey has also led Rosamund to contemplate what Ella, who dreamt of becoming a pilot, would have made of the past weeks. 

“For her, the air meant freedom, it meant flying. If she was sitting in court and they said, ‘the air that you love so much is what is killing you’, I do not know what she would say.” 

She paused before adding: “Her bedroom was blue, it represented the sky, she had planes on the wall. That air that she loved was killing her.”

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