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Sadiq Khan apologises to mother of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah after her air pollution asthma death

Sadiq Khan on Friday made a “full and unqualified apology” to the mother of a nine-year-old London girl who died because she lived near roads with illegal levels of toxic air.

At an event at City Hall, the mayor said sorry to Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah for the loss of her daughter Ella in 2013.

Despite not being mayor at the time, he said the Greater London Authority and Transport for London should have acted sooner to tackle pollution.

Ella, who died on February 15, 2013, from a fatal asthma attack, was the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate.

Mr Khan, whose decision to introduce and expand the Ulez clean air zone was inspired by Ella’s death, said: “As the mayor of London, I’d like to take this opportunity – on behalf of the Greater London Authority and our city – to offer a full and unqualified apology for not acting sooner to tackle air pollution, which ultimately led to the tragic death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah.

“In recent years, we’ve ensured that London is a world-leader in reducing air pollution.

“But it’s clear that London’s leaders and institutions could have done more – and sooner – to address the dangers of toxic air.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died from dangerous levels of air pollution in 2013 (PA Media)
Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died from dangerous levels of air pollution in 2013 (PA Media)

“And so, to Ella’s mother Rosamund, her family and to all those who knew and loved Ella, I simply say: Sorry. You deserved so much better.”

Ella, who lived in Lewisham 25 metres from the heavily polluted South Circular Road, first became ill shortly before her seventh birthday.

She had over 30 emergency hospital admissions between asthma being diagnosed and her death. At the time, there was no mention of air pollution being a possible factor.

But a landmark second inquest in 2020 resulted in the coroner concluding that “Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution”.

He said Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was not given information about the health risks of air pollution and its potential to exacerbate her daughter’s asthma.

Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah thanked Mr Khan for the apology but said: “Nothing will ever make up for the pain and suffering that Ella went through."

She said Ella, who was born healthy and was a “happy, vibrant child”, first became unwell while climbing the Monument while studying the Great Fire of London. “Ella could not catch her breath and started coughing,” she recalled.

“The horror of these years, as Ella struggled to survive, I would not wish on any other human being or family.”

Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said that, 14 years after Ella first became ill, she was determined to keep “fighting for justice”.

She said: “Last Wednesday, Ella would have turned 20. Her life and death has been a long and painful journey. People need to know Ella is the one child we know about. Toxic air continues to make people very sick and continues to kill children.”

Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said 1.1m children were receiving asthma treatment. “To our huge shame, the UK has the highest mortality in Europe of children where there is an underlying cause of asthma.

“As a paediatrician, I don’t believe any other child in the UK should be allowed to suffer in the way Ella did.”

The apology on Friday is part of a legal action brought by Ella’s estate under the Human Rights Act, including breach of the right to life.

The GLA and TfL have reached a confidential settlement but action is continuing against three Government departments – the Department for Environment, the Department for Transport and the Department for Health.

 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Attempts are currently being made in Parliament to introduce “Ella’s law”, which would make it a human right to breathe clean air and force the Government to bring air quality in every community up to minimum World Health Organisation standards.

Boris Johnson was mayor during the period Ella became ill and subsequently died.

Mr Khan, who became mayor in 2016, said he was “determined to keep Ella’s memory and legacy alive” by continuing efforts to clean up the capital’s air.

He told Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah: “No child should suffer as Ella did. And no family should have to endure the pain and heartbreak that you have.”

Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah told the Standard on Friday that Mr Khan's apology on behalf of the GLA was “better late than never”. She confirmed the legal claim against the Government was ongoing.

She revealed that Mr Johnson had written to her “on more than one occasion” to he was sorry for her loss.

She said: “I think his letter was interestingly worded… he didn’t offer a full apology in the way Sadiq has done.

“When he was Prime Minister he was prepared to work with me. The same for [Theresa] May. I never got the opportunity to write to [Liz] Truss.”

By comparison, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has not responded to her letters, she said.

She had discovered after Ella’s death that the South Circular Road had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide caused by traffic.

During the second inquest, it became apparent that throughout Ella’s life, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Lewisham exceeded both EU and national levels, and particulate matter levels were above the World Health Organisation guidelines.

Coroner Philip Barlow concluded: “Air pollution was a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbations of her asthma.

“Ella’s mother was not given information about the health risks of air pollution and its potential to exacerbate asthma. If she had been given this information she would have taken steps which might have prevented Ella’s death.”