In February 2013, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah experienced what no parent should: the death of her nine-year-old daughter, Ella, from a rare form of asthma.
Rosamund was struck by how a healthy, young child had become so ill. She turned to air pollution experts for help, and after a long inquest, Ella made legal history as the first person in the UK to have air pollution recorded on their death certificate.
Almost a decade on, Rosamund is continuing to fight for people’s right to clean air. She founded the Ella Roberta Family Foundation to improve the lives of children affected by asthma in South East London. This year, Rosamund also became the BreatheLife Champion, where she will work with the campaign side by side to bring more awareness on air pollution in cities.
“It’s a horrible thing to watch your child suffer and you can’t do anything about it,” said Rosamund. “Before this happened to my daughter, I wasn’t aware of the effects of air pollution. So, there must be people that also don’t know.”
Rosamund lives 25 metres from one of the busiest roads in London— the South Circular Road, which in 2010 had levels of nitrogen dioxide that exceeded the annual UK legal limit of 40µg/m3. While vehicles have since become cleaner through emissions regulation, the traffic on the road is worse and people are breathing in the fumes.
“Campaigns on air pollution involve too many statistics,” Rosamund said. “Air pollution needs to be communicated as directly affecting people’s health.People do not want to get ill. They don’t want to get cancer or have a stroke. Covid-19 taught me that if something external is tied to people’s health, they are much more likely to listen.”
Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat for premature death. Every year, more than 7 million people die from air pollution factors— more than that of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Recently, two leading American physicians called on peers to begin screening patients for exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution in relation to heart disease, and recommend interventions in order to limit exposure.
“There needs to be a sea change,” said Rosamund. “Doctors will talk about lifestyle and diet but never mention pollution. When you have an asthma attack, doctors think you are not taking your medication. It saddens me.”
Rosamund says that it is also very clear that air pollution represents social inequality, as the people who are most affected are the poor. A recent study found, almost two-fifths of children in the Lewisham borough in London were living below the poverty line — one of the highest rates in the country.
The World Health Organisation reports that more than 90 per cent of all air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.
Statistics present air pollution deaths as black and white. There needs to be more mothers or people who have experienced it speaking out about the effects of air pollution and warning people to lessen their exposure or they could suffer the same fate as her.
In the meantime, Rosamund says she will continue to advocate for the disaffected from air pollution, in some cases as “the only person in the room” who has experienced a death from air pollution.
“A mother in India, who’s child is ill won’t have the time to campaign, she has to think about how to put food on the table,” she said. “But we need to ensure that those people’s voices are heard because they are the ones who are living with it.”