They were only meant to be short-term jobs to help save for family holidays. But Maureen Bell’s relations believe in just two years she was exposed to the cancer-causing asbestos which eventually killed her.

The 65-year-old lost her fight for life in February 2005, within months of being diagnosed with mesothelioma. And now her family are fighting to find out how the much-loved gran-of-two, from Houghton, died. Outgoing and popular, Mrs Bell, a widow, started developing pains in her side in May 2004.

Sister Christine Naisbitt, 57, of Mill Estate, Rainton Bridge, said: “She wasn’t a person who was poorly, Maureen was always fit and active. She didn’t have high blood pressure or any of the other illnesses associated with people of that age. She was chatty, friendly, active, outgoing, enthusiastic and full of fun.”

Daughter Karen Grundy, 49, added: “She didn’t really know what was wrong with her. Her biggest problem until then was having arthritis in one toe which meant she couldn’t wear high heels. “She put it down to all sorts of different things, age related, but little by little it got worse.” Maureen, an energetic gran who threw herself into hobbies such as line dancing and gardening, holidayed with her extended family and insisted on doing everything they did.

“When we went to Florida she insisted on doing all the big rides, like Space Mountain,” added daughter-in-law Janet, who lived just doors away from her on Houghton’s Dairy Lane Estate. For most of her life Mrs Bell worked in shops, finishing at a grocers in Gilesgate, Durham. But her family believe a two-year spell in factories in the mid-1960s triggered her exposure to deadly asbestos.

Mrs. Grundy, an optician, of Rickleton, Washington, said: “We couldn’t fathom out where she had been exposed. As far as we know she hadn’t worked anywhere with asbestos.” Mrs. Bell worked at GEC in Newton Aycliffe in 1965 for two years, making telephone parts, followed by 10 weeks at a furniture firm RW Toothill Limited, also in Newton Aycliffe.

“By the time she knew it was mesothelioma, she was really too ill to take anything in. It happened that quickly.” Mrs Grundy said, adding: “I find it frustrating to think mum was doing that those jobs to make our lives better and to get the money for holidays.”

Mrs. Bell, died in Sunderland Royal Hospital on February 4, 2005. Tests, five months earlier, had revealed mesothelioma, with doctors confirming she had just months to live.

Sister Christine said: “There was no available medication and the last few months of her life were horrible. I think Maureen’s life was taken long before she should have died. Why was she punished for going out to work on an evening? Mrs Grundy added: “People have a choice whether they want to smoke and develop lung cancer, people like my mum never had a choice.” Solicitors acting for the family are looking to former workmates to help solve the riddle behind her death.

Neil Wilkinson, of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, said: “A review of Mrs Bell’s career history indicated several jobs where asbestos exposure could have taken place”. They include the two Newton Aycliffe factories and a four-week spell at a sewing factory in Fence Houses known as Hires, when Mrs Bell was 15 in 1953.

The dangers of asbestos have been known since the 1930s, with Sunderland an area particularly affected by fatal diseases caused by working with it.

Claims are now spiraling, with 2,000 people dying in the North East from asbestos cancer mesothelioma between 1985 and 2004. More women are now being affected. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos dust and symptoms can appear decades after the asbestos dust was inhaled. Many diagnosed die within months.

Asbestos was widely used for insulation in the once thriving shipbuilding industry, and there was an asbestos dust “mountain” at the Cape Insulation works in Washington. In addition, the rapid post-war housing growth led to an increased use of asbestos in the building industry. Mr. Wilkinson said: “Mesothelioma claims are very reliant on witnesses coming forward and I ask that if anyone worked with Maureen Bell to come forward and share any information that they may have.

“Mrs. Bell’s life was cut short due to unnecessary exposure to asbestos and the family are seeking answers as to why this happened.”


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