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Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at the Horniman Gardens
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah: ‘I have to be hopeful about London’s future – otherwise I’d give up’

The clean air campaigner has worked tirelessly in 2023 to make the capital pollution-free – that’s why we’ve named her Time Out’s Community Hero of the Year

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

Just over a decade ago, nine-year-old Ella-Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died of an asthma attack. She lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, a heavily polluted area of south London. Ella, who was in year four at school, had a creative streak. She enjoyed reading, painting and had a particular flair for playing the cornet. Seven years after her passing, air pollution was recognised as one of the biggest factors that caused Ella’s death, making her the first person in the UK to have pollution listed on their death certificate. 

The delayed diagnosis wasn’t by chance. It was down to the determined campaigning of her mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. ‘I was too broken, I didn’t have the energy to carry on,’ she says. But after the initial pain of losing her daughter, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah channelled her grief into something new. She left her job as a teacher to become one of London’s most prolific clean air activists. 

Now, she’s a fully fledged public figure, a regular face at City Hall and Parliament, and is lobbying for a new clean air act called Ella’s Law, which would establish a human right to clean air. This year, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was a key figure in getting through one of the most progressive (and divisive) environmental changes to London to date: the expansion of the ULEZ to cover the entire city. 

‘It's been a long, very productive year, but talking to you now I feel amazing,’ she tells me, in a slightly flustered phone interview. Thanks to her jam-packed schedule, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah had to rush off after her Time Out photoshoot at the Horniman Gardens, where Ella’s cornet was on display in an exhibition about the historic Clean Air Bill. Four hours later, she’s just got in the door, and is speaking down the line at a million miles an hour. ‘I’m so uncomfortable [having my photo taken],’ she laughs. ‘Sometimes people recognise me because I’ve been on the telly, but being famous is definitely not for me. I do publicity because I’m raising awareness, but I need a very normal life. There’s nothing glamorous about what I do.’  

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at the Horniman Gardens
Photograph:Jess Hand for Time Out

Despite the dogged nature of campaigning, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah has remained committed to her cause, even in the face of critics. That’s why we’ve named her Time Out’s Community Hero of the Year. As 2023 comes to a close, we caught up with the activist and educator about her outstanding work over the past 12 months. 

Getting ULEZ through was one of my biggest achievements this year. I’m not expecting immediate results, but I hope I am around to see them. I am proud of what I do, my children will benefit from it.

I was saddened by the backlash, but politics, unfortunately, has entered this space

Sadiq says I’m going to end up saving millions of lives. It’s really sad I had to go through something so horrendous to get here, but if there’s anything I could do to save another family, I would. 

Getting Ella’s Law to the House of Commons was a big challenge. I didn’t succeed in the end, but I'm still pushing. We’ve got more than 13,000 signatures on the petition now. 

I was saddened by the backlash, but politics, unfortunately, has entered this space. The biggest challenge was sticking to what I know and staying true to the science.

There have been around 70,000 studies about air pollution and health. It is so concrete – for example, 30 percent of lung cancer cases now are because of air pollution. Twenty percent of strokes are caused by air pollution. 

They found black carbon in the brains of dementia patients. But as soon as you come out with something like this, they say you’re trying to scare people. People would rather know. 

Portrait of Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah at the Horniman Gardens
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Particulate matter 2.5 is the pollutant that contributes to ill health. Air pollution is indoors and outdoors. Everything is connected – we have a very long NHS waiting list which is heading to 8 million. Just before Covid it was almost at 4.9 million.

If the government cleans up the air, not as many people would get ill. Prevention is better than cure. 

There’s an election coming up and if this is something you’re passionate about, now is the time to make it known to your MP. I could give you the usual – walk, cycle and all that – but ultimately, it’s about changing legislation. 

I look at what happened to my daughter and I’m trying to avoid that happening to other families. Children still die from asthma – there was a boy in the paper last week who died from it. Seeing how Ella suffered, it’s not something I would wish on anyone.

You have to learn to live with a broken heart. People always tell me, ‘you’re so strong’, but I don’t like that because it’s giving the wrong image. When you’re down and alone in your house people aren’t going to see that. I need to recharge. 

Imagine if they made Oxford Circus cycling only? It would be very controversial

If I have a day off and I’m out with my friends, I’m prepared to try going anywhere. The peace of going round an art gallery is indescribable. My favourite gallery has to be Tate Modern

I have to be hopeful about the future of London because otherwise I would give up. Change happens in baby steps – I would like politicians to be bolder. There needs to be a public health campaign. Public transport could be cheaper, cleaner and safer. 

I came back from Amsterdam recently and cycle lanes are everywhere. Imagine if they made Oxford Circus cycling only? It would be very controversial, but they managed it over there. 

Seeing Ella’s cornet at the Horniman was beautiful. It was displayed alongside a conch shell that makes a similar noise. It’s about remembering how talented Ella was. 

I look at some of the stuff her siblings are doing and I wish they could have been in a band together. There was more to Ella than just asthma.


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