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'Pollution is killing our community', says Kissi-Debrah

PICTURED: Ella Kissi-Debrah

THE MOTHER OF a nine-year-old girl who lost her daughter to an asthma attack is leading a campaign to make the community aware of how African Caribbeans are disproportionately affected by air pollution.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah has pushed for a new inquest into her daughter Ella’s 2013 death after research found that her fatal asthma attack may have been linked to unlawful levels of air pollution monitored near her home in Lewisham, south east London.

That inquest was granted last week. If the new inquest determines there was a link, Ella’s death will be the first one attributed to air pollution.


Now Kissi-Debrah is urging other families to become aware of how the issue affects them. Recent research for the Mayor of London has shown that African Caribbean people are disproportionately affected by poor air quality.

She told The Voice: “The BAME community needs to become more aware of this issue and just as worried as I am.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that black people are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Research has shown that people who live near main roads in poorer communities are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses such as asthma.”

She continued: “Yes, every community has asthma but when we look at the gures there are more people with asthma in the BAME community.

“This is not me saying it, this is what research has uncovered. And very similar figures have been uncovered in the US in terms of how black people have been affected by air pollution.”

AIR POLLUTION: Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, centre, outside the High Court after judges decided that a new inquest could look into the death of daughter Ella

A 2016 study for the Mayor of London found that black, African and Caribbean people accounted for 15.3 per cent of all Londoners exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels that breach EU limits, despite forming only 13.3 per cent of the city’s population.

Aether, the consultancy which produced the report, said that the proportion of white and Asian individuals exposed to dangerous NO2 levels was lower than the fraction of the population they account for.

Among the boroughs with an overlap of a large black community and high pollution levels were Southwark, Lambeth and Hackney.

Although previous research showed a strong link between areas that are economically deprived areas and a greater exposure to polluted air, the study was the first to suggest a related ethnicity dimension to the issue.

The Aether study said: “People living in places with high proportions of black, mixed or ‘other’ ethnic groups are more likely to be exposed to above EU NO2 limit value concentrations than those in areas with a high proportion of white people.

This effect is not seen for areas with a high proportion of Asian groups.”

Kissi-Debrah said: “This issue is extremely important. One of the things I’ve noticed is that there are very few people in the climate change and environment movement that look like me.

“It’s something that I’m very much aware of because I do take my responsibility very seriously.

“Whenever I’m out talking and campaigning about this issue I do want members of the BAME community who see me to think, ‘This is a normal mum, this happened to her’ – and I want them to engage.

“And that is starting to happen. I was in Lewisham, Catford the other day lming with the UN and as I was doing it I got a lot of approving nods from black people who were passing by us.

“People were letting me know that they’d seen me and encouraging me to continue doing what I’m doing.”
She continued: “I hope as a result of this campaigning the BAME community realises it also needs to be concerned about air pollution. I don’t want us to think it’s a problem solely for white middle class people or people living in certain well-off areas.”

Ella, nine, died in February 2013 after experiencing three years of seizures. An inquest in 2014 concluded Ella’s death was caused by acute respiratory failure and severe asthma.


Following the inquest verdict, Kissi-Debrah made contact with asthma and air pollution expert Professor Stephen Holgate. After researching Ella’s case he produced a report which said there was a “striking association” between Ella’s emergency hospital admissions and recorded spikes in NO and PM10 particles, the most noxious pollutants.

His report said there was a “real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died”.

The nine-year-old, who was not born with asthma, often walked to school in an area close to the South Circular Road – which has often been described as a pollution “hot- spot”.

Kissi-Debrah said: “We noticed that air pollution wasn’t part of the original inquest. However, we believed it contributed to her ultimate demise so we decided to go to the courts.

“We’re not saying that there was anything wrong with the original inquest and there’s no criticism of the coroner whatsoever. But we now have new medical evidence. We said that we wanted to quash the verdict of the original inquest and that a new inquest to examine the new medical evidence should be arranged.”

Speaking about the recent High Court decision to grant a new inquest, she said: “I’m so relieved. Part of me felt surely you can’t have a child who gets ill randomly just like that? Surely there’s got to be more to it. That was just my feeling as a mother.

“I also feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. There’s been a lot of support and people understand the enormity of the fact that we’ve got a new inquest.”

For further details about Rosamund Kissi-Debrah’s campaign, please visit

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