Vigil to remember pollution victim Ella on what would have been her 18th birthday

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah speaking at the vigil Pic: Chandni Doulatramani

Scores of people gathered in a Lewisham park on Sunday for a candlelight vigil to commemorate what would have been the 18th birthday of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah – the first person in the UK whose death, at the age of nine, was legally attributed to air pollution.

Ella, who lived near the South Circular Road, died in 2013 of chronic asthma after being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution and “drowned in her own mucus”.

In a landmark case in 2020, a coroner determined that air pollution ‘materially contributed’ to her death and called for a change in law. This was the first time in the United Kingdom that air pollution was identified as a cause of death, after her mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah campaigned for an inquest.

Ella and her mother Rosmund
Ella and her mother Rosmund Pic: Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah

On Sunday, many Lewisham residents, including a 4-year-old girl, gathered with candles and lamps at the bandstand of Mountfields Park, in Catford where Ella liked to play. Some of her friends from school shared memories of her and a few sang songs and hymns.

Since Ella died, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, has been advocating for cleaner air inside and outside the UK. Comparing air pollution with COVID-19, she told Eastlondonlines: “The only difference between Covid and air pollution is that Covid closes an economy and air pollution doesn’t,” adding that she was very unhappy with the COP26 summit where “politicians were just being politicians and there was no urgency.”

A member of the Green Party, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, has stood for elections at a local and national level.

Earlier this month, experts had forecast “very high” levels of pollution in London. According to the UK government: “In London, 9,400 premature deaths are attributed to poor air quality and a cost of between £1.4 and £3.7 billion a year to the health service.”

Pictures and videos: Chandni Doulatramani Edited by: Valentina Colo

Kay McLeod, a 35-year-old Mandarin and Chinese teacher trainer at University College London who lives in Hither Green, Lewisham, told ELL: “I came to show Rosamund support because I’ve been aware of her work for several years now and I really admire her. I have even been very happy to be able to vote for her a couple of times as a local green representative … It’s lovely to see this cross-party support.”

McLeod moved to Lewisham in 2013 and became aware of Ella’s case through a local Facebook group. She has since been interested in how living in a city and breathing polluted air can affect people’s health.

Lewisham Mayor Damien Egan, who has been a supporter of the campaign for many years and was present at the vigil, told ELL: “Ella’s story has touched so many people because of the injustice … and clean air is genuinely a human right. We’re taking steps in Lewisham on a council level [and] sure lots of councils will be doing things that they can do. The truth is we actually need a lot more funding, we need a lot more support from governments and really make a difference.”

As a first step, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said she would like the Government to start a public health campaign, just like there have been campaigns for smoking, to educate people about the detrimental effects of air pollution.

MP for Lewisham Deptford Vicky Foxcroft and MP for Lewisham East Janet Daby also came to show their support.

Daby told ELL: “Ella went to primary school in my constituency … and I’m very aware of the carbon emissions that come out of cars and the effect that can have on children’s ability to breathe.

“All people’s lives need to be improved. Children’s lives need to be prioritised. It makes me very angry. There was a time when the Thames was so smelly and dirty and then [the government] had a plan to clean up the river and make a big difference to London. We need that huge change again,” she added.

For now, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is celebrating Ella’s birthday by going out with friends and family for a meal. Every year on Ella’s birthday, she wakes up knowing “at some point, [Ella’s death] will just hit me. I can’t explain it. But there’ll be a moment when I’ll think about it.”

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