This Hat Blogs: Remembering Ella Kissi-Debrah

Author: Shafeen Mahmood

Ella Kissi-Debrah’s early childhood was one of activity, enthusiasm, and genuine achievement. As a young girl, she threw herself into everything she did and always excelled. By the time she was nine, she had a reading age of 14 and could play ten different musical instruments; she was well-liked by her peers and acted as a caring older sister. Ella’s passion for life was utterly contagious.


In a recent interview, Ella’s mother, Rosamund, reminisced at how her daughter could never understand how people would ‘struggle to do things’ – this is an unerring testament to Ella’s character considering she suffered from one of the most debilitating cases of asthma ever recorded. Though Ella was healthy up until the age of six, the last three years of her life were punctuated by severe asthma attacks that contributed to her admission to hospital 27 times. On five different occasions, Ella’s lung collapsed as she battled a form of asthma that relentlessly flooded her lungs with fluid. Tragically, Ella passed away in February 2013, it is only now that the true implications of her death are being recognised. 

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah has been a fierce advocate for more legislation regulating air pollution.

Air pollution is a silent killer. In the UK, it is estimated that 40,000 people a year die at the hands of toxic air. On a global scale, it is said that air pollution contributes to seven million premature deaths annually. Despite these shocking statistics, air pollution is seldom taken seriously - the air looks clean, we rarely see any visible pollution, so we pretend its genuinely catastrophic effects do not exist. Air pollution is neglected amongst a crowd of issues that are seemingly bigger, more easily visualised, and therefore more immediate. Living in London, for example, I am reminded more of the littered streets and the discoloured Thames than I am the quality of the air.  Air pollution unjustifiably flies under the environmentalist radar. 

On 16 December 2020, and after much campaigning and lobbying, air pollution was recorded as Ella Kissi-Debrah’s cause of death. This is the first time air pollution has been registered as a cause of death in the UK and represents a monumental stride in recognising the potentially deadly effects of air pollution, especially for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. Ella lived in Lewisham, South-east London, where levels of traffic-generated nitrogen dioxide air pollution regularly exceed the annual legal limit of 40µg/m3. On her daily commute to school, Ella would walk down the South Circular Road in Lewisham, one of the most traffic-congested roads in London. It was factors such as these that contributed greatly to her death. As it has become abundantly clear, Ella’s asthma attacks were seasonal, her collapses would occur largely in Winter when people are more likely to take to their cars and air pollution spikes. Cruelly, Ella didn’t know this, but hopefully in the wake of her passing and the fallout it has produced, others will recognise the invisible dangers of polluted urban air. 

Ella Kissi-Debrah sets an example to us all in terms of how we should be. Cherish life, appreciate the things that make it what it is. That starts with treasuring the air we breathe.

Please take some time to look at the incredible work being carried out by her foundation: