Air pollution

The Girl Who Was Killed By Toxic Air

Ava Chong

In the wee hours of 15 February 2013, near the South Circular Road, in Lewisham, south-east London, the excruciating yet innocent death of a nine-year-old schoolgirl Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah caught the attention of millions. Little did her mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah know at that time that the tiny particulate matter in the air, PM2.5 (about 3% of the diameter of a human hair) was slowly sucking the life out of her daughter. “Air pollution”, for the first time in the UK, was inscribed on the death certificate as the cause of death, forever etched on the throbbing heart of Ella’s mother.

But firstly, who is this girl killed by toxic air? On the surface, Ella was just like any other happy, carefree child. She was a gifted, remarkable and exceptional girl. Talented in music, she knew how to play a dozen instruments, showed great aptitude for sports, such as football, cycling, skating, swimming and dancing, demonstrated her flair for writing, was good at art and had a reading age of 15 years when she was nine years old. However, beneath her cheerful countenance hid an agonizing past. When she was six, a few strange symptoms of asthma appeared out of the blue, and afterwards, the simple act of breathing suddenly became the biggest challenge of her life. Her mother rushed Ella to the hospital 28 times in 28 months when she suddenly began suffering from severe respiratory issues and seizures. She was admitted into intensive care five times and put in a medically induced coma to save her life. She was diagnosed with life-threatening asthma at the age of seven. Unfortunately, she took her last breath when she was nine. Ella’s sudden asthma attack was peculiar – as a mother who was devastated by the sudden loss, she was determined to find the answer – a reason for her daughter’s death.

“The past six years of not knowing why my beautiful, bright and bubbly daughter died has been difficult for me and my family, but I hope the new inquest will answer whether air pollution took her away from us,” Miss Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said. An inquest in 2014, which focused on Ella’s medical care, concluded her death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma, which had perhaps been triggered by “something in the air”. Until that time no one had talked about air pollution as a cause of Ella’s illness and Rosamund says she became determined to find out what that “something” was. A 2018 report shed light on Ella’s case: it was likely the unlawful levels of nitrogen dioxide near her home, which exceeded World Health Organisation and European Union guidelines and detected at a monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home, contributed to her fatal asthma attack. On 16th December 2020, her mother finally found the answer and justice she was looking for: the London Inner South Coroner’s Court concluded its two-week inquest, led by coroner Philip Barlow, which suggested that it was the excessive illegal levels of air pollution, not only inducted her asthma, but it was the highest ever on the night she died.

Rosamund was heartbroken to discover that “air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of Ella’s asthma” two years after Ella’s death. She was exasperated that the medics never raised the issue of air pollution while she took her daughter to hospitals. If they did, her family would have taken the decision to move from the area, where Rosamund first came 20 years ago, when “there was less traffic and the air was not so polluted”, which would certainly have reduced Ella’s exposure to air pollution and prevented her death. Moreover, Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, a leading expert on air quality at the University of Southampton, the lining of her lung was largely stripped off and therefore the chemicals in the air would interact with the nerves and the tissues directly, which proved that air pollution was a factor in her developing asthma at the age of five.”

“Ella is the UK’s first person to have air pollution added to her death certificate, she may be the first person, but it is sad. I have fought for that for her and I am sure that there must have been other children in the past that might have been affected by air pollution.” Rosamund exclaimed.

Yes, this statement is shockingly true. Air pollution, indeed, is an invisible, ruthless serial killer – half a million babies under one-year-old die due to polluted air, according to the data from the State of Global Air 2020. Every day, the World Health Organisation warns that 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years breathe air that puts their health and development at serious risk.

Since then, Miss Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah has been raising awareness of asthma and the health problems that can be caused by air pollution in the UK. She quit her job as a teacher, and became a full-time grassroots campaigner, advocating for clean air – a basic human right. She founded the Ella Roberta Family Foundation, aiming to improve the lives of children affected by asthma SE London.“Air pollution is a pandemic. It is everywhere in the world and it is in every country. They may have different causes, Poland may have coal, in Ghana, where my parents come from, is from cooking and things like that.”

Ella’s mother felt that her daughter has been sacrificed to make people aware of the impact that air pollution has on health. The death of a young, innocent 9-year-old Ella serves as a wake-up call for numerous governments which repeatedly ignored the guidelines of WHO, to remedy the harmful pollution levels. The death of a young, innocent 9-year-old Ella is a turning point such that other families do not have to suffer the same heartbreak as Ella’s family. The death of a young, innocent 9-year-old Ella “sets the precedent for a seismic shift in the pace and extent to which the government, local authorities and clinicians must now work together to tackle the country’s air pollution health crisis.” The death of a young, innocent 9-year-old Ella “shone a brilliant white light on the importance” of the issue of air pollution and called on the government to “start to treat this with the seriousness that it deserves”.

The second inquest of Ella’s death simply made the harmful impacts of air pollution impossible to ignore. Responding to the coroner’s recommendations, the government finally announced it aimed to have new legal air pollution limits in place by October 2022, in hope of improving public awareness. In February 2022, London’s mayor laid out proposals to charge drivers a “small” daily fee of up to £2 for “all but the cleanest vehicles” to help hit climate change targets and delivered “a £3.8bn plan to clean up transport and tackle NO2 pollution and going further in protecting communities from air pollution, particularly PM2.5 which is especially harmful to human health.”

The unwavering commitment of Ella’s mother, Rosamund, to campaign for cleaner, safer air for our children has been truly inspiring, and her efforts are acknowledged by many famous people, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger who called Miss Rosamund a hero, the Hollywood actor and former governor of California, an advocate for better clean-air standards, who thanked her for “exposing air pollution for the killer it is”, and the mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan, who described her campaign as “hugely impactful”. She has enabled people across the world to acknowledge the cruelty of air pollution. She deeply believes that breathing clean air is every child’s human right, and her daughter’s heart-rending story has proved to us that the fight to breathe clean air is real.

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