SPECIAL REPORT: Asbestos - the cancer-causing killer which will take the lives of hundreds of former shipyard workers

17 July 2017 5:10PM

ASBESTOS was once called the magic material - now its name can strike fear in anyone who worked in the shipyard before its use was banned in 1999. AMY FENTON met the man who single-handedly campaigns for people living in the town which has England's highest asbestos-related mortality rate - Barrow

BOB Pointer's life has revolved, in one way or another, around ships.

Being the son of a naval seaman and having spent his childhood living in key shipbuilding and naval towns in the south of England, it was little surprise that Bob ended up entering the submarine service himself.

"It's like how here in Barrow pretty much everyone ends up going to work in the yard - and where I lived, near Portsmouth, it was the same with the navy," Mr Pointer recalls.

People who worked in the yard in the 60s, 70s and 80s are sitting there waiting to be told they've got it

After a 14-year career with the navy as an ordnance electrical artificer, during which time he met his wife-to-be Veronica and moved to her hometown of Barrow, Mr Pointer started work in the yard in 1985.

His career change would lead to another key meeting in his life - the first time he came across asbestos and the devastating impact it would have on his fellow shipyard workers.

"In the yard in the 1980s it was everywhere - fire blankets, lagging, packing cables and fuse boxes, it was called the magic material," Mr Pointer says.

"It wasn't really until about 2000 when it became clear that asbestos was causing health problems but everyone already knew. It's a bit like when they finally linked smoking with cancer.

"Since the 80s we were getting mixed messages from management. One would say don't go near it while some said it was perfectly safe. They knew it was dangerous and they still said it was safe."

There are three main types of asbestos. Two of these – called crocidolite and amosite – were banned in 1985 (although voluntary bans came into force earlier) and the use of the third type (chrysotile) was widely banned in 1999.

Buoyed on by his fellow members on the trades council, Mr Pointer was volunteered to spearhead a taskforce and in January 2005 set up a public meeting at Abbey House Hotel to discuss the impact asbestos was having on Barrow.

The town now has a mortality rate which is three and a half times the national average. Although other traditional industrial and shipbuilding towns and areas such as Hartlepool and Tyneside are also hit hard by asbestos-related diseases, Barrow has the highest rate in England and Wales.

"It's indiscriminate and you could never predict who it will affect," Mr Pointer says.

"You might have a welder who worked in the yard for 30 years being exposed to it every day who doesn't get it but one of his kids, who used to run up and hug him in his overalls when he gets home from work, will die from it.

"Or you've got the women who washed their husband's work gear. Some of my best friends from the yard have it or have died from it.

"In the cul-de-sac where I live, there's only eight houses but four of my neighbours have it.

"You can guarantee that everyone living in Barrow knows someone affected by asbestos exposure. It's a ticking time-bomb and we're only just reaching the peak of cases being diagnosed."

Because it typically takes around 30 to 40 years from exposure to symptoms being reported, many thousands of people may not yet know if their time in the yard will end up killing them. By that time it will be too late - diagnosis to death can be as short as three months.

Although compensation claims for people exposed to asbestos at work are increasing, and more likely to be successful thanks to campaigning and government intervention, Mr Pointer says many of those he helps are dead before the payout is made.

He said: "One of the problems we see locally is that some people might have worked in the yard, then went on to the paper mill, or Sellafield, and their claims are often contested because you can't prove when and where you were exposed to it."

"So many people who worked in the yard in the 60s, 70s and 80s are sitting there waiting to be told they've got it."

For Mr Pointer, a father of two and granddad to Evan (12) and Noah (8), scans have so far revealed no sign of the disease in his lungs, something he describes as "a miracle".

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he adds.

For the last 10 years, Mr Pointer has helped to run the Cumbria Asbestos Related Disease Support (CARDS) group.

But as he approaches 70, and with his work continuing to take an emotional toil on him, he knows his days running the group are numbered. This puts CARDS at risk, with no clear successor to take up the gauntlet.

Mr Pointer said: "One person can't do it all; I said last year I've had enough and it's getting to the point where I'm effectively doing a lot of it on my own."

CARDS holds meetings at the disability centre in School Street in Barrow, between 2pm and 4pm on the third Monday of every month with upcoming dates set for July 17, August 21 and September 18.

You can find out more about CARDS at their website HERE.


Breathing in asbestos fibres may eventually scar the lungs of some people, which can lead to a number of symptoms, including:

  • shortness of breath – this may only occur after physical activity at first, but it can eventually become a more constant problem;
  • a persistent cough;
  • wheezing;
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness);
  • chest pain;
  • in more advanced cases, clubbed (swollen) fingertips.

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