Mother of Lewisham girl who died from pollution tells Cop27: ‘We have a human right to breathe fresh air’

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah speaking at Cop27. Pic: Giulia Gasparri

The mother of Lewisham nine-year-old girl whose death was attributed to air pollution, was praised for sending a “powerful message” when she spoke at Cop27 this week.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah’s daughter, Ella, died in 2013. At Cop27, Kissi-Debrah spoke at a World Health Organization panel on climate change and women’s health.

The documentary about Ella titled Black Corporeal (Breathing by Numbers) was also screened at the Climate Mobility Pavilion.

Kissi-Debrah told the panel: “I believe we have a human right to breathe clean air, and saving lives must be a priority… the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of air pollution”.

The former Assistant Director-General of the WHO, Dr Flavia Bustreo praised Kissi-Debrah’s “powerful message on air pollution”.

Speaking exclusively to Eastlondonlines about Cop27, Kissi-Debrah said: “I attend these events to raise awareness and to hold the powerful to account. My message remains the same: countries around the world, and especially the U.K., should adopt the 2021 WHO guidelines with extreme urgency.”

Ella Kissi-Debrah was only nine years old when she died from complications of her asthma due to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide around her home in Lewisham, on the South Circular Road.

In December 2020, a landmark ruling by London coroner Philip Barlow directly linked her death to air pollution exposure. Ella was the first person in the UK to officially have air pollution named as a cause of death. And according to Kissi-Debrah, the first in the world.

Since then, Kissi-Debrah has campaigned for the Clean Air Bill, named Ella’s Law, which is currently at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. She has also founded the Ella Roberta Foundation.

Air pollution levels in Lewisham remain high but carbon emissions have decreased by 100,000 tonnes.

A section of the new Air Quality Action Plan 2022-2027, put forward by the Lewisham council, directly references Ella’s premature death.

Graph showing annual mean of Nitrogen Dioxide. Pic: Air Quality Action Plan Summary, Lewisham Council.

Speaking to Eastlondonlines Councillor Louise Krupski, cabinet member for Climate Action, said: “We have been working hard to improve air quality in Lewisham in recent years. We’ve introduced School Streets to reduce air pollution around schools, improved our air quality monitoring network and upgraded our Council fleet to comply with the highest standard of emissions.”

Krupski added that despite the success of reducing air pollution ”we know there’s still more to do.”

Kissi-Debrah voiced her scepticism towards Lewisham’s progress: “Not enough is being done. I also have reservations about schemes that are not comprehensive. Car use reduction schemes need to be borough, and indeed London wide, otherwise the poorest will suffer.”

“Right now my focus is ensuring the urgent extension of the ULEZ (ultra-low emission zone) London-wide. I wrote to the mayor and assembly members earlier this week urging them to back it. I believe this could be the biggest turning point for the health of Londoners ever.”

Speaking about Cop27, Kissi-Debrah said: “I will attend future events if invited and if the urgent topic of air pollution – an invisible pandemic – is on the agenda.”

Children in London are almost four times more likely than children elsewhere in England to attend a school in a highly polluted area. People of colour are more than three times more likely to live in neighbourhoods with very high air pollution, according to a recent report from Friends of the Earth.

Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health and is associated with 28,000 to 36,000 premature deaths in the U.K alone, and 7 million deaths worldwide, according to WHO.

Leave a Reply