Black History Month: My Environment - Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah lost Ella, her eldest daughter, to an asthma attack in 2013. In May, the High Court agreed to a second inquest that could name air pollution as the cause of Ella’s death – a world first.

Adoo-Kissi-Debrah says the times Ella was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties coincided with spikes in air pollution on London’s South Circular motorway, near the family home in Lewisham. In March, the Royal Courts of Justice ruled that the south London teacher can bring her case to the High Court, based on new medical evidence and on public interest.

Adoo-Kissi-Debrah also has 12-year-old twins. In 2014, she launched the Ella Roberta Foundation to campaign for better air quality. On Mother’s Day, she launched the Mums For Clean Air campaign.

What is your relationship to the environment?
During the first inquest into Ella’s death, we didn’t know that air quality was an issue. Ella was a tomboy, and nothing was going to stop her playing outside when she was well. On the night Ella died, air-pollution levels near the South Circular were among the highest ever recorded.

As members of the public, we don’t yet fully understand the impact of air pollution on children’s health. This is where the battle needs to be won. There are links between air quality and common health conditions; coronary heart disease, strokes, dementia, pneumonia – incidences of lung cancer in people who’ve never smoked. And all these conditions are on the increase.

Rates of asthma in London have increased by 25 per cent. In every class of 30 schoolchildren here, three or four have an asthma diagnosis and 10-15 per cent of under-19s have an asthma diagnosis. That just is not acceptable. The government has a duty of care to its citizens – and it is not taking this on board. People cannot continue to be poisoned.

How does this shape your daily life?
At times, you can smell the pollution in the air. We’ve put air-quality monitors on school children around south London that show that air quality regularly breaches safe European Union limits. As parents, we are very worried.

London has the worst asthma rates in the European Union; every year, between eight and ten children die of asthma. There’s been a lot of emphasis on what we all need to do as individuals – it feels as though we’re letting the government off the hook. And we do need collective will to change things – but we need the political will to back it up.

This needs to be everybody’s problem; we all breathe the same air. We will have to wait two years to become part of the Ultra-low Emission Zone, yet Lewisham has the second-highest rates in London of hospital admissions for asthma and persistent wheeze – and Croydon has the highest.

Why must we wait two years? We deserve the same clean air as people in zone one. Children are vulnerable, and we can only judge our society on how it treats its most vulnerable. We need to design our cities with children in mind. We can’t wait. The urgency is now.

What small changes have you made, to be more sustainable and to protect the environment?
We all feel we cannot function without our cars. It’s not about giving up our cars; it’s about driving less. And as a family, we drive a Prius, but we make fewer car journeys.

My children walk or cycle to school and I use a scooter to get to the office. Our air quality isn’t great – and that affects all 300,000 people who live in Lewisham – but the twins keep incredibly fit. And thanks to the twins, we use less plastic and eat less meat.

Recycling is all the rage in our house.

Scaling up, what do businesses and politicians need to change to make our environment more sustainable?
That recent report, saying we have 12 years to stop climate change; 12 years? The time to act is now. The government needs to spell out to us what it plans to do, and we must be able to hold them to account. We have been in breach of European Union air-quality levels since 2010.

On March 18, Lambeth breached the legal limit [for PM10 particles] for the whole year. Why are we keeping this quiet? When we leave the EU, we may have to adopt World Health Organisation air-quality standards that are supposedly more stringent. My research suggest that the US has far tougher air-quality laws than we do. If we aren’t meeting EU standards, how will we meet more stringent ones?

Are you an environmentalist?
No. I’m not. Definitely not. I’m an advocate for children and young people. My aim is to work with different people to change things, whether that’s the government, or local organisations, or schools. As a teacher, I go into schools and raise awareness. And I do believe climate change needs to be part of the national curriculumit’s every bit as important as personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.

The children I’ve met on the climate marches know exactly what they don’t want, but they’re often badly informed. That’s not their fault, if we don’t teach them in schools. That’s another way to reach into deprived communities, because that way, children can go home and teach their parents.

I’m passionate about children having green spaces, about having the right to clean air. And in Lewisham, the number-one disease is childhood obesity. We need education to change things. That’s my focus. I’m so new to all of this. Am I even allowed to call myself an environmentalist?

Where do you go from here?
In July, I travel to Washington to meet a US-based group, Mums Clean Air Force, which has a powerful voice in the US. It’s a movement of everyday mums and dads that holds the government there to account. We want to learn from them how to build a grassroots movement.

We’ve launched the Mums For Clean Air campaign, because we need more diverse voices. That’s so important. The environmental movement has been very white, very middle class. There’s nothing wrong with that. We have to start somewhere. But right now, the people affected disproportionately by poor air quality are not getting their voices heard. And people feel powerless – they feel they can’t do anything about it.

It’s great that Michael Grove plans to launch a new environmental watchdog for the UK post-Brexit, but what powers will it have? Who will be on it? If that watchdog is toothless – if we can’t hold our government to account – then what would be the point?

I’m not holding my breath.

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This story was first published in The Environment magazine in June 2019

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