Environment

Mum whose daughter, 9, was killed by air pollution blasts Ulez critics

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah's daughter Ella was killed by air pollution in London. She wants Ulez's opponents to take the health crisis seriously

ulez, rosamund adoo-kissi-debrah

'I would rather people didn't frame this as a little green issue,' said Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. Image: Talk TV

The expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) has prompted a full-blown climate culture war, with MPs endorsing breaking the law to vandalise its cameras and a high-profile plumber for Sadiq Khan to be killed.

But for the mother of the first person in the world to officially die from air pollution, the issue is more simple: there’s a public health crisis, and children are being killed.

“I would rather people didn’t frame this as a little green issue. It’s a public health issue. It’s a public health crisis,” Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter Ella died in 2013 at the age of nine, told The Big Issue.

“It’s about health, by the way. It’s not about economics or politics, it’s about health.”

In 2020, Ella was the first in the UK to have air pollution recorded as the cause of death on a certificate. Ella and Rosamund lived near the busy South Circular road, and the coroner found “excessive” levels of pollution made a “material contribution” to Ella’s death from a fatal asthma attack.

As the Ulez expanded to cover all of London’s 32 boroughs on 29 August, Conservative politicians carried on their opposition to what is now the world’s largest clean air zone. Newly-minted net zero secretary Claire Coutinho has previously spoken out against the expansion, claiming it would be a “kick in the teeth” to working people.

“Hang on a minute, how can they be against something that the chief medical officer is for? How can they be against something that Public Health England is for,” said Rosamund.

“How can they be against something that all medical doctors are for? There is something not quite right.”

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Between being diagnosed with asthma and her death, Ella was admitted to hospital 30 times. Her death certificate originally recorded her cause of death as acute respiratory failure, but – after a campaign from Adoo-Kissi-Debrah – a second inquest found that high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution contributed to Ella’s fatal asthma.

“The coroner in my daughter’s case didn’t just write to the department of environment. He wrote to the department of environment, transport and the department of health,” she said.

“So even the coroner three years ago saw this as a health matter, and what he urged is that the royal colleges, all parties – and I repeat this again, all parties including the mayor of London – need to work together to resolve this issue.”

Adoo-Kissi-Debrah appeared alongside Sadiq Khan as the policy was expanded, and Khan has frequently spoken about how Ella’s story inspired his determination to reduce air pollution in the capital.

Just 54% of London’s households own a car, down from 57% in 2006. However, the outer boroughs new to the zone tend to have higher rates of ownership. 

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The Ulez charge of £12.50 a day for non-compliant vehicles has been criticised for its impact on low-income Londoners and small businesses and charities. A scrappage scheme, offering drivers up to £2,000 to replace a non-compliant car, was recently expanded to cover all Londoners.

Overall, 85% of vehicles in outer London are compliant with Ulez, meaning they do not face the charge.

But Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said the most vulnerable in society would in fact benefit from the scheme.

“Regarding homeless people on the streets who are breathing all these fumes, and who absolutely do not own cars. The air quality in time is going to be better for them.

“I can’t promise them, the only thing I can say is if the government adopt it as law, we will make more progress even quicker for people like the homeless. But that is not within my gift unfortunately.”

She added: “When you’re poor, you don’t have a car”.

However, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said there were inevitably winners and losers with any new policy, and that improved access to public transport would “inevitably” help with the attitude towards Ulez.

“Public transport needs to be made cheaper, safer, more reliable and clean, and more people will take it. During the summer holidays, why can’t we be like Spain? And do free travel for families to encourage them. We have to give people incentives.”

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