Rosamund Kissi-Debrah at Southwark Coroner Court in London following the investigation into the death of her daughter Ella
Kirsty O’Connor / PA Wire / PA Picture
A landmark study has finally given a name and face to the human cost of air pollution – an environmental crisis that is estimated to kill up to 36,000 people in the UK and 7 million worldwide each year. On December 16, a British coroner found that 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death in 2013 was caused by asthma caused by her exposure to “excessive air pollution” in London.
The verdict marks the end of a seven-year journey for her mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah and her family. It is also the first time in the UK any person has listed air pollution as a cause of death, with potentially far-reaching consequences for air purification measures by local and national governments (see Legal Action below).
Rosamund’s request that Ella played a lot of musical instruments, was a great dancer and swimmer, and wanted to become a pilot. New Scientist spoke to Rosamund to find out what she thought of the verdict, Ella’s legacy, and what was to happen next.
How do you feel? It was a 14-day investigation and six years since the original investigation that listed acute respiratory failure as the cause of Ella’s death.
Shock, really. It’s so huge that you can’t really take it up. It will take a while because this is how I am, I just don’t rush with these things. I’m relieved that it finally happened, but I didn’t wake up feeling like a different person. There would never be a big celebration. This was about getting justice and putting her on her death certificate. There was nothing to celebrate, but there was a sense of victory.
We know that thousands of people die every year in the UK as a result of air pollution. What is the significance of a person when listed as a cause of death?
One of Ella’s doctors felt that breathing failure wasn’t really doing her justice. It doesn’t tell us what she went through. The filthy air she breathed choked her and eventually she died, so it has to be on her death certificate. I wasn’t really interested in people saying, “Oh, nobody’s done that before.” This is my daughter, this happened to her, and we proved it, so she should get this. As a mother, you want the real reason your child died on the death certificate.
What do you hope will be the further ramifications of this judgment?
In 1952 we had a new Clean Air Act for the last time. That could be asking too much [a new act], I dont know. We will consider all sorts of things.
What do you think of the idea of an “Ella Law”?
I don’t mind. That would be a great honor for you. If it saved lives I would do anything to promote it. It’s about saving lives, all I can do so that no child goes through what they went through. I am more than happy to support it.
The investigation was about determining the cause of death, not the culprit, but the coroner said the authorities’ inaction to lower levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) “may have contributed to her death.” What do you think about it?
It makes you angry. When you are in court and you realize all of the mistakes people should and shouldn’t act on. It’s just that the public health emergency wasn’t there. It sometimes has similarities with covid. I think “come on, you’re too slow”. The people knew [air pollution was a problem]. But where was the urgent action?
The air quality in London has gradually improved and London Mayor Sadiq Khan is expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North Circular and South Circular streets near where you live in October 2021. What do you think of his record?
He tries. He’s done some very good things, but I want ULEZ to be London-wide so we can all breathe the same air.
The investigation is now over. Will you continue to campaign for air quality?
Now I can say what I really want, you’re damn right, I will. I have to speak to some people in Parliament about WHO [World Health Organization] Goals in the new environmental accounting. For me to take it seriously, they have to enshrine it in law.
What would Ella have thought of all this?
She knew she would be on the medical books about her asthma. Her asthma was so severe and so rare. What was your answer? Cool. What would she do with it? The kind of person she was, if you showed it would save lives, she would like this. Another thing is that she likes to be popular with her siblings and friends. One of the things she worried about was that maybe they would forget about her and move on. From this point of view, the fact that people will remember them for something good will accept them. The sad thing is that she never made her dream of flying come true.
How should Ella be remembered?
I would want her to be reminded of how funny she was. How caring she was – she always cared about other people, she helped someone read in her class. She loved her friends, she was incredibly loyal. How bright it was. With her sense of duty, she went to Beavers, Cubs, wanted to Air Cadets. Also a very serious side to her. She played chess. She used to laugh and that smile. To remember her as a happy child. As I told her, bad things happen to good people sometimes.
The UK is divided into 43 areas for air quality monitoring purposes. Three-quarters of these areas breach annual averages for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas mainly found in diesel vehicles. Of these areas, only London has so far set up a Clean Air Zone (CAZ), which charges fees to discourage and lower the level of the most polluting vehicles.
“These zones have been shown to be the most effective way to address the problem,” says Katie Nield of ClientEarth, an environmental rights group that has successfully challenged the UK government in court over the speed with which it is acting on toxic air . Cities like Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton opposed CAZs, while Oxford and Birmingham have used the Covid-19 pandemic as justification for delays in them.
Nield says the verdict on Ella’s case should make the government sit up and take notice. “It’s really very significant,” she says. Nield hopes the investigation’s conclusion will spark renewed public and political pressure to reach existing boundaries that the UK has broken for a decade – and set targets to meet the even stricter guidelines of the World Health Organization.
The pressure builds up. Simon Birkett called for an “Ella’s Law” in the “Clean Air in London” campaign, a new clean air law similar to the 1956 Act that helped remove London’s major smog, but aimed at modern problems like NO2. Some MPs have already supported the idea.
More on these topics: