The walls are still blue in the bedroom where Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah once slept. Against the makeshift sky the little girl created, she stuck pictures of aeroplanes.
For before succumbing to the asthma which blighted much of her childhood, nine-year-old Ella dreamt of becoming a pilot. Lying in her bed, she could pretend she was flying through the air.
But what would Ella have said if someone had told her it was the air that was actually making her so sick?
That is a question her mother, Rosamund, has been asking herself since a coroner made legal history last week by ruling that illegal levels of air pollution near the family home in Lewisham, South London, contributed to her daughter’s death in 2013.
For before succumbing to the asthma which blighted much of her childhood, nine-year-old Ella dreamt of becoming a pilot. Lying in her bed, she could pretend she was flying through the air
The ground-breaking ruling on Wednesday, at the end of a second inquest, after the initial ruling in 2014 was quashed by the High Court, is the first of its kind in the UK, possibly even in the world.
‘Ella thought that flying was as close to being in heaven as you could get,’ says Rosamund.
‘She was obsessed with planes and the idea of being up in the air.
‘She had no idea — none of us did at the time — that the thing she loved most was killing her.’
Over the seven years that have passed since Ella died, Rosamund, a secondary school teacher, has fought tirelessly for justice for her daughter. She was determined that other children will be guaranteed clean air to breathe.
The fight, she tells me, wasn’t just for her daughter: it was ‘for all the other Ellas out there’ — all the children forced to breathe on a daily basis air filled with nitrogen dioxide and toxic particles.
What would Ella have said if someone had told her it was the air that was actually making her so sick? That is a question her mother, Rosamund, has been asking herself since a coroner made legal history last week by ruling that illegal levels of air pollution near the family home in Lewisham, South London, contributed to her daughter’s death in 2013
Nor is the battle over. While she can do nothing to bring back her beloved daughter, she can try to prevent other parents going through the same agony.
‘Air pollution is an invisible killer, and by talking about what happened to Ella, by shouting about it, I want to make it visible so others don’t die,’ she says.
‘I’m not going to stop until people stop becoming sick because of filthy air. It’s a basic human right to be able to breathe clean air.’
Her grief at losing her daughter — smiley, pretty, with deep, deep brown eyes, as seen in these exclusive, heartbreaking photos from the family album Rosamund has shared with the Mail — was channelled into her battle.
And now that the lethal impact of toxic air will forever be associated with Ella’s innocently beaming face, politicians can no longer pretend that illegal levels of pollution are a victimless crime. Indeed, air pollution is recognised as being responsible for around 40,000 deaths a year, but until Ella’s inquest last week, it had never been cited as a contributory cause on any death certificate.
Rosamund now has her sights set on a Clean Air Act — an ‘Ella’s Law’ which would force this and future governments to improve air quality for generations of children.
But the impact of her campaigning is likely to go even further.
Not surprisingly, comparisons are now being drawn between this single mother from one of London’s poorest boroughs and Erin Brockovich, the American single mum and environmental campaigner made famous by actress Julia Roberts who played her 20 years ago in an eponymous film.
Like Brockovich, Rosamund has also been approached by film-makers keen to see her story transferred to the big screen. She can’t say too much, she says, but admits: ‘I want to do everything I can to publicise the effect of air pollution.
‘I don’t want Ella’s death to be in vain. I want to do everything I can to save future lives.’
The celebrity attention doesn’t end there. Early last week, just hours before Ella’s second inquest at Southwark Coroner’s Court, Arnold Schwarzenegger called Rosamund via WhatsApp to wish her luck.
The pair met two years ago after he read about her case in the New York Times and invited her to speak at a pollution conference organised by the Schwarzenegger Institute in Vienna in May 2019.
The former Hollywood star and ex-Governor of California, who now devotes his public life to environmental campaigning, also wrote to her the night before the verdict, lauding her as ‘a hero’, and saying he was ‘blown away’ by her achievement ‘whatever the inquest finds tomorrow’.
‘I know this is the culmination of years of hard work on your part to have pollution’s terrible impact on your daughter acknowledged,’ he wrote in the letter signed simply, ‘Arnold’.
‘As a father, I cannot think of anything worse than what you’ve been through. There is no greater tribute to Ella’s memory than your efforts to protect other children who live alongside busy intersections, close to factories, or downwind of power plants.
‘You are a hero. You proved that when you channelled your love for Ella into exposing air pollution for the killer it is.’
Because behind the public campaigning and the relentless legal battles of the past seven years, this is the story of a heartbroken mother who lost an adored child — the kind of trauma from which no parent can ever truly recover.
While Rosamund is delighted by last week’s inquest verdict, the loss of her daughter is ‘a sacrifice too far’.
She would give anything to turn back the clock and have Ella home, safely tucked up in her blue-sky bedroom; to return to a life where she’d never met the likes of Schwarzenegger or been featured in Radio 4 Women’s Hour Power List 2020.
As she and Ella’s younger twin siblings, now teenagers, prepare for another Christmas without her, the pain of losing her eldest child in the early hours of February 15, 2013, is as raw as ever.
The day before had been Valentine’s Day, she recalls. She and her three children had sat down for dinner together. Ella, who had been given a Kindle Fire for her birthday three weeks earlier, had downloaded music on it and was dancing around the living room.
‘She was the life and soul,’ says Rosamund. ‘When it was time for bed, she kept going half way up the stairs and then coming back down, singing. She was being very cheeky.’
At around 2 am, Rosamund was woken by Ella’s coughing — a sound that made her blood run cold, knowing as she did that it heralded one of her daughter’s deadly asthma-induced seizures.
Three months before her seventh birthday, Ella had developed a chest infection that led to a persistent barking cough.
In October 2010, her doctor diagnosed asthma and prescribed an inhaler. At the time, Rosamund wasn’t too alarmed given that around 5.4 million people in the UK are being treated for asthma — 1.1 million of them children.
What Rosamund didn’t know then was that, on average, three people a day die from asthma in the UK, which has one of the worst records in Europe.
Just two months later, in December that year, a severe bout of coughing led to Ella suffering the first of 27 seizures, caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Each of them required hospital admission.
It’s worth noting that between each seizure, Ella was a healthy, active child who loved swimming, football and gymnastics, as well as drama and dance. Lively, curious and fun, she devoured books and was filled with energy — not only for sport, but for music, for which she had a real talent, playing the guitar, cornet, piano and drums, and didn’t suffer from breathlessness.
When her coughing fits started, they did so without warning, and between attacks the family lived on a knife edge, fearing the moment when they would suddenly begin.
For when they did, Ella would turn blue and stop breathing. On each occasion, she was rushed by ambulance to Lewisham or King’s College Hospitals where doctors resuscitated her.
In the early hours of February 15, 2013, as Rosamund anxiously watched medics attempting to resuscitate her daughter, she thought they’d do the same again.
‘They all knew Ella,’ she says. ‘This time they carried on for longer than was usual. They didn’t want to stop trying.
Unbeknown to Rosamund, the first inquest in 2014, which had recorded ‘acute respiratory failure’ as the cause of Ella’s death, had attracted the attention of Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, an asthma specialist. Suspecting a link to soaring pollution levels, and noting that Ella and her family lived barely 25 metres from London’s inner arterial road, the South Circular, he had already begun investigating her case. He got in touch, explaining to Rosamund that Ella’s attacks correlated to peaks in pollution levels in their area
‘But in the end, a consultant stepped in and said, ‘It’s time to stop.’ ‘
Even before those words were uttered, Rosamund had a premonition that this might be the time they were unable to bring her daughter back.
‘I remember the feeling I had when Ella was born — the feeling of a child leaving your body. Now, it was as if everything had been reversed. It felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach.’
The first two years following the death of her young daughter passed in a blur. Grief poured out of her, as if from an open wound. She walked around in what she remembers now as a relentless physical pain, unable even to open the condolence cards she was sent from children at Ella’s primary school.
Then came the questions about the loss of Ella.
Unbeknown to Rosamund, the first inquest in 2014, which had recorded ‘acute respiratory failure’ as the cause of Ella’s death, had attracted the attention of Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, an asthma specialist.
Suspecting a link to soaring pollution levels, and noting that Ella and her family lived barely 25 metres from London’s inner arterial road, the South Circular, he had already begun investigating her case.
He got in touch, explaining to Rosamund that Ella’s attacks correlated to peaks in pollution levels in their area.
Data from two air quality stations managed by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and close to the family’s three-bedroom home in Lewisham, showed that from September 2010 until Ella’s death in February 2013, pollution levels were well above EU limits.
Hidden dangers in tiny soot particles
As many as 64,000 people die each year in the UK as a result of air pollution, according to research last year from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
The main danger lies with PM 2.5, tiny soot particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns (around 30 times smaller than a human hair).
The particles are produced by diesel cars and other vehicles, as well as by wood-burning stoves, gas cookers and candles. They enter the body via the eyes, nose and mouth, and can get deep into the lungs, where they trigger irritation and exacerbate asthma.
As well as making asthma symptoms worse, the particles can also lead to the development of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the umbrella term for a group of diseases that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, as well as cardiovascular disease.
Research shows that the particles can move into the bloodstream, damaging and narrowing the walls of blood vessels, which can restrict the flow of blood, raising blood pressure and increasing the risk of clotting.
These changes can lead to heart attack and stroke — and possibly dementia, according to recent evidence. Allergies such as hay fever can also be exacerbated by air pollution.
New research from the Max Planck Institute suggests that air pollution could also contribute to a significant proportion of deaths from Covid-19, by aggravating patients’ other conditions (such as heart disease).
His evidence ultimately helped Rosamund and her lawyers to overturn the first inquest into Ella’s death and win the right to the second hearing last week.
It has also empowered her to set up The Ella Roberta Family Foundation (Roberta being Ella’s middle name) in the hope of improving the lives of other children with severe asthma by reducing air pollution.
Rosamund has now given up her job teaching at a local secondary school to run the foundation and to carry out her campaign work. Her gritty determination is hugely admirable — but public service, she says, is in her blood.
Her grandfather served as attorney general in Ghana. Her mother, Rebecca, who died last year without seeing justice done for her granddaughter, was a retired teacher.
Rosamund, who was born in London, studied psychology at Middlesex University and worked at the Institute of Psychiatry before moving into teaching in 1997 and eventually becoming a deputy head.
‘There is still so much work to be done,’ she says, citing the fact that in London alone, 872 schools are in areas where air pollution levels breach EU recommended levels.
In the UK, a child is admitted to hospital every 20 minutes because of an asthma attack.
She is still awaiting Ella’s death certificate and the coroner’s Prevention of Future Deaths report, which will heap further pressure on the Government to act.
Once Christmas is out of the way, she says, she will think about finally opening the dozens of still-sealed condolence cards she was sent when Ella died.
‘Christmas is hard,’ she says, ‘because I know what’s just around the corner.
‘It’s Ella’s birthday in January — she would have been 17 next year. We always go to a restaurant for dinner, just me and the twins, with a cake for her. Then it’s February and the anniversary of the day we lost her.’
After delivering his ruling on Ella’s death last Wednesday, coroner Philip Barlow turned to Rosamund and said: ‘We all have many reasons to thank you for the determination you have shown in getting us here.’
Without question, Rosamund has done what she set out to do — to make the invisible yet lethal effects of pollution, visible. The generosity of spirit she has shown in looking out for the children of others while still deeply mourning her own is humbling indeed.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it at the end of his letter to Rosamund last week: ‘I am blown away by your bravery and honoured to know you.
‘Thank you for your tireless work to make life better for other children. You have succeeded in honouring your beautiful Ella.’
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