Childhood memories of Capper Pass tinged with sadness as toll spirals on

A wooden bridge over a stream at the back of Lou Baker’s garden in North Ferriby, near Hull, leads straight into woods and then on to fields heavy with ripening corn.

Countless children have skipped down that path looking for excitement and adventure, gangs roaming over the fields towards the slightly sinister and imposing edifice of Capper Pass.

Owen, the youngest of Lou’s three sons, spent hundreds of happy hours with his friends in the woods and fields and on the Humber foreshore.

The children feasted on wild strawberries, sucked nectar out of the nettles and fished in the creeks. They rushed up and down the slag heaps at Capper and messed about on motorcycles on the dirt tracks.

When Owen was about 11, the old chimney was pulled down and a higher one built after tests on children and adults in the area showed high levels of blood lead and arsenic.

But as a child he didn’t know or care about things like that.

Even after a fence was built around the plant it didn’t stop them finding a way through – getting past the two men in the red Land Rover just made the game even more thrilling.

Once the plant closed down a couple of triumphant children even managed to shin up the inside of the chimney, regardless of its hoary history of pumping out highly toxic fumes including heavy metals and radioactive polonium-210 and unknown quantities of thorium-230.

Owen never thought of these childhood memories as anything but happy – but since last year they have taken on a different hue. In May he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – which experts link to exposure to ionising radiation of the type being produced by Capper and certain chemicals such as benzene.

Owen, now 30, hardly remembers Christopher King, the boy in the year above him at North Ferriby Church of England Primary School who died of a brain tumour at the age of 11 in December 1978 or the other boy two years above, who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma only eight months before Christopher in February 1978.

Nor did he know Lisa Waugh, in the year above, whose parents moved to the Lake District and who later died of leukaemia just after graduating, or the other North Ferriby schoolboy, whose parents moved to Anlaby, near Hull, and died in 1988 of cancer, at the age of 14.

Then there was Alison Sansby whose parents, Christine and David, owned the off-licence in the village, and who died at the age of 12 in 1984 after fighting for eight years against a malignant inoperable brain tumour.

Like many other families, the Sansbys moved away, to Bridlington in their case, and so Alison was never included in a childhood cancer survey commissioned by the local health authority.

Owen, a healthy 17-stone fitness fanatic before being struck down by the disease, spent most of last year in hospital.

He lost seven stones, his hair fell out and his immune system was attacked by opportunistic infections. He could hardly walk upstairs or open a bottle. He suffered jaundice and at one point his body turned a violent red in reaction to drugs.

As a locum pharmacist who had worked at Hull Royal Infirmary, it was particularly hard to adjust to a situation where his professional colleagues became his carers.

Last October he had a bone marrow transplant at St James’s Hospital, in Leeds – he was lucky to find a donor in his brother Gareth – and is now back on the slow road to recovery.

Owen stresses that, although among the hundreds of claimants for compensation from the plant’s owners Rio Tinto Zinc, he is not in it for personal gain. Nor does he want to point the finger of blame. Any compensation will go to the new haematology ward at Hull Royal Infirmary.

He says: “I don’t know what triggered this. Was it the chemicals I worked with at university or was it Capper Pass?

“What I want to know now is whether the area is safe for children who go there. Have they, for example, looked at the paths in the woods which have slag from the plant on them?”

His father Lou has a different view. As a pharmacist at Hull Royal Infirmary who used to work on the children’s ward, he has seen many children with leukaemia, and at least two from the village.

Stressing that he is speaking from a personal point of view, he adds: “Our GP took blood tests from the three boys when they were in primary school. The results were not published but not long after the new chimney was built.

“That implies there was some pressure there, or recognition that something was wrong. My fear is that when the chimney was raised, it started dropping on the people of Hull.

“I am told that medical staff come from teaching hospitals in Leeds here because of the abnormally high levels of leukaemia and blood-related neoplasms.

“Epidemiologically, most leukaemias are caused by radiation or solvents. Now my son is not a solvent abuser.

“There are carcinogens all around – we are being bombarded by cosmic rays and then there is petrol. But if I were a betting man I would still put the odds slightly in favour of it being an unnatural cause.

“There’s no easy answer but it has caused a lot of unhappiness to a lot of people and if someone made a decision knowing there was a risk to people living nearby then they should be made responsible.”