UK air pollution and asthma: the right to clean air

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah talks about losing her daughter Ella to asthma and the need to fight air pollution in the UK.
  Published:  12 May 2017    |      Last updated:  01 Sep 2022    |      3 minute read

In 2013 Rosamund Kissi-Debrah tragically lost her daughter Ella, aged 9. In 2020 a coroner concluded “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”.

Rosamund set up the Ella Roberta Family Foundation in Ella’s memory, and campaigns for action on clear air. Her work includes:

  • Campaigning for the Environment Bill and then Act to include targets based on World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines.
  • Specifically, for government to change the date for their target for fine particulate matter air pollution, which can get deep into lungs, bloodstream and other organs, to 2030 not 2040, on the way to meeting the new WHO guideline by 2040
  • Working with Green Party Peer Baroness Jenny Jones on her Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, which people are calling Ella's Law.

As part of the Healthy Air Campaign, we're calling for government to make similar improvements.  (This introduction was updated in August 2022)

Interview and images by Neil Baird.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who is calling for action on air pollution after losing her daughter to asthma, facing camera.
Rosamund lost her daughter Ella to asthma
Credit: Neil Baird

Tell me a little about the Ella Roberta Family foundation

We educate people and raise awareness about the seriousness of asthma. We want to understand the reasons why it’s not being taken seriously.

One of the areas we’ve branched out into is looking at the pollution levels in Lewisham [south east London] because they are very high. This brought us in contact with Friends of the Earth.

Find out more about the Ella Roberta Family Foundation.

Ella Roberta family foundation

Lewisham has one of the highest rates of asthma in the UK. We’re looking forward to seeing what the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is going to do about emissions.

Lewisham as a borough is right in the middle of the South Circular road, the pollution levels are very high.

You can really smell the diesel from cars. The traffic is non-stop.

Breathing clean air should be a basic human right. If you want to walk down the street and get a newspaper, you deserve to breathe.

Do people feel powerless to know what to do?

People don’t know how they can contribute. Hopefully with Friends of the Earth, we can lead some joint community initiatives like planting trees. We want to let people know how to get involved.

It’s an uphill struggle, but I’m sure the community will come together and help me fight this, because it is in all of our interests.

Our aim is to lobby the Mayor to make sure he includes the South Circular in his emission zone. It’s up to us to convince him.

A recent report shows that a lot of local schools are in high pollution areas.

So this work all came out of the death of your daughter Ella?

It did. When Ella passed away I was too devastated. I would have never thought about setting up a foundation. But thanks to Dr Wallis [a respiratory consultant from Great Ormond Street hospital] we started the foundation in Ella’s memory.

Ella had to take a lot of medication because she was very ill. At the time, I thought that people who died from asthma had to have severe asthma.

But when I looked into it more closely, I found that it could happen to people who have mild asthma too; if their inhaler technique is poor or they can’t afford their medication or it’s out of date.

You spoke about the problems with public transport and the idea of getting cars off the road as being a long-term solution…

It’s all well and good encouraging people to leave their cars at home but in Lewisham we don’t have many cycle lanes.

The roads are very dangerous. Parents aren't comfortable asking their children to cycle.

We have train stations but tickets are incredibly expensive. We calculated that for 2 people to travel into town would cost £25 for the whole day. If you get stuck in traffic on the South Circular on a bus, you might as well walk.

Rosamund Kissi Debrah by a road, facing camera.
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah by the South Circular, London. Photo: Neil Baird

Electric cars are also expensive. We wanted to change our car but we were surprised at how expensive an electric car is.

To encourage people to buy electric cars there need to be some incentives. At the moment, there aren’t enough. In order to move forward, people need to know the alternatives.

What would be your key message to encourage people to get involved in addressing air pollution and asthma?

The first thing people need to do is find out what the pollution readings are in their neighbourhood. I think they will be genuinely surprised that they didn't know all along that the air they are breathing is polluted.

You don’t need to be an asthma sufferer or have breathing difficulties to care about air pollution. It affects everybody.

However, asthma can come on at any time or age. If you have asthma, always make sure your inhaler is up-to-date and carry it with you.

We can’t tell people they have to move. People have their homes, they go to the local school, they have friends and support groups.

We should change how we do things so families can enjoy good quality air. We can’t all move to the countryside, that’s not feasible. But what we can do is all contribute to what’s going on in our neighbourhoods.

All children have a right to good education, and all children have a right to breathe clean air.

This is where I think my daughter was cheated. She was ill and she wasn’t breathing clean air. That’s what we should be fighting for – for our children to breathe clean air.