Environment

'Nothing fills that void': 10 years since Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died from air pollution

Nearly 40,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year

A school photo of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. She was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. (Image credit: Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah)

“As her mother, all I want is to have my daughter back, but I know she won’t come back. And the fact is that Ella’s death will end up saving millions of lives.” It’s been 10 years since Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said goodbye to her daughter.

Nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died on February 15, 2013, from a severe asthma attack directly attributed to the illegally high levels of air pollution in Lewisham, south London, where she lived with her family. She would have been 19 this year, laying the foundations for her adult life, and is, to date, the only person in the UK to have air pollution listed as their official cause of death.

According to figures released in 2022, around 97 per cent of addresses in the UK are surrounded by unsafe levels of air pollution, and nearly 40,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year. The problem is worse in cities, and worse still in poor areas near busy roads like the one where Rosamund lived with her family in 2013, 30 metres from the London’s South Circular.

In the three years leading up to her death, Ella was taken to hospital nearly 30 times and suffered regular seizures and acute asthma attacks. Initially, Rosamund had no idea her daughter had died from the smog and fumes in the neighbourhood. But after years of fighting for an inquest into Ella’s death, Rosamund finally had answers about what happened to her daughter in December 2020. The coroner ruledShe has since been fighting tooth and nail for better air quality in Lewisham and across the country in honour of her daughter. 

“I don’t want another mother to experience the same tragedy. I don’t really hate anyone, but even if I did, I would not want [them] to go through what we went through,” Rosamund tells the Big Issue.

Rosamund is fighting to get the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, also known as Ella’s Law, passed through the House of Commons. The bill will have its second reading on March 24, about a month after the anniversary of Ella’s death. 

If passed, breathing clean air would become a human right. The law would force the government to bring air quality in every community across England and Wales up to the minimum standards set by the World Health Organisation within five years and to set up an independent commission to monitor the progress in achieving this goal.

In terms of the fight for climate justice, for the environmental and social impacts of our addiction to fossil fuels to be minimised for all, not shouldered by the poor or vulnerable, it would be a landmark piece of legislation in the UK.

Ella would have been 19 this year. (Image: Ella Roberta Foundation/Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah)

Under Ella’s Law, the government would be required to give local councils substantial support to achieve clean air in those areas in line with those targets.

When asked how it feels to have her daughter become the poster child for air pollution, Rosamund is stoical. “It keeps her name alive,” she says.”It could’ve been that she died and it was the end of the story. But, she would have liked everyone knowing who she was.”

However, “nothing fills that void”.

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Air pollution levels differ widely across the UK but millions are breathing in unsafe levels of toxic air. Most places in the UK – especially in urban areas – have air pollution levels that breach the WHO’s limits for what is considered a safe level of pollution.

The WHO guidelines call for 5 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 annually, but current air quality targets proposed by the government as part of the Environment Act is to cut PM2.5 down to 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2040.

The Environment Act targets also seek to reduce the number of people exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution by 35 per cent. As Asthma + Lung UK estimates 22.2 million people live with unsafe levels, the government is seeking to get this number down to 15 million or less.

Campaigners like ClientEarth criticised the target for being too far in the future, meaning “another generation of children” will be exposed to toxic air. However, Defra said the targets have to be “achievable” and said it is not possible to cut down the amount of PM2.5 until 2040.

Ella had asthma as a result of air pollution, mainly due to road transport in Lewisham, but both the WHO and the European Environment Agency have linked short-term and long-term exposure to air pollution to strokes, lung cancers, diabetes, dementia, and obesity.

Though the WHO states “clean air is a basic human right” and should be achieved to mitigate these health impacts, this right is not enshrined in UK law. That’s where Ella’s Law would come in.

Rosamund is 50/50 about whether Ella’s law will pass through the House of Commons. “We are so close. But, the government needs to feel like people really care about this issue so they feel compelled to do something about it.”

That’s why Rosamund is organising an event on February 15 featuring art, music, and speeches to honour Ella’s legacy and to call for clean air for everyone. 

“We want as many people to come along as possible and to help us fight for clean air,” she says. “People think they have no power, but they do. Nothing will change if we don’t make ourselves heard.”

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Rosamund sounds resigned at times, especially when she talks about where she stands in the grand scheme of things – after all, she is just one person. But, she is also filled with hope that her campaigning will all be worth it in the end and is pleased that those efforts are increasingly being recognised.

“There were many things that people thought we couldn’t achieve,” she says. “One thing we campaigned for in the past was to move up the target to get rid of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – ten years earlier than planned. It was a slow and painful process, but it happened. And now, with Ella’s law passing through the House of Lords and being debated in the Commons, there is every chance we can make sure no other child dies from it.”

And while Rosamund is just one person, she is a force of nature when it comes to campaigning on her daughter’s behalf. In fact, she recently received a CBE for services to public health.

Rosamund was surprised when she was told about it: “I was like, ‘You’re joking!’ It’s a massive honour.” But, despite this monumental achievement, she is clear about one thing: “I’d give it all back to have my daughter back.”

Rosamund says she dreaded the anniversary of her daughter’s death, especially as ten years is a big milestone. “You never expect your child to die before you. But I have to be strong for my other children too,” she says.

In recent weeks, despite also dealing with the anticipation of commemorating Ella’s death, she has continued to fight for air pollution to be taken more seriously. 

She is seeking to speak to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the subject of air pollution, but has not yet had a response. She says: “If I could, I would rather spend more time raising awareness with the public, talking to them about the impacts of air pollution on their health rather than having this whole back and forth with the government trying to get them to listen to me or the scientists who know about it.

Parts of London regularly have high air pollution levels. (Image: Ana Paula Grimaldi/Unsplash)

“This fight for air pollution is actually uncalled for. The science is very clear – if it wasn’t for illegal levels of air pollution in Lewisham, Ella would have lived. She wouldn’t never have gotten asthma and she wouldn’t have died that night because air pollution that night was the highest it had been.” 

There are a number of things the UK can do to combat air pollution, but it won’t be easy and it won’t happen without widespread political support, Rosamund says. 

“Things need to change. We’ve got one of the most expensive public transport systems in the world when what we need is cheap, reliable public transport. I simply do not see public transport as the government’s priority but it should be.

Rosamund is adamant that she doesn’t care about party politics. For her, it’s about the science that shows how harmful air pollution is to people’s health and the environment. 

“They should do what’s required. It shouldn’t take the likes of me and other people to bring in clean air for everyone.” Rosamund adds.

Do you have lived experience or burning opinions to share about this story? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

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