By Nathan Ferguson
For centuries, the useful properties of asbestos have lent themselves greatly to commercial exploitation. Contrary to the typical industrial use of asbestos, the material has appeared as fake snow in many largely successful movies – most notably the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.
Since the late 19th century, people have attempted to create artificial snow from asbestos for many purposes, including for use in movies, theatres, and even in department stores and private homes.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (played by July Garland), along with the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man, were snowed on by chrysotile (or ‘white’) asbestos fibres, whilst Dorothy lay unconscious in the film’s famous poppy field scene.
In the modern day, there is a wealth of knowledge about asbestos at our disposal, compared to the limited knowledge of asbestos in centuries gone by. However, despite the fact that the health concerns of asbestos were known for several years prior to the filming of The Wizard of Oz, (as far back as 1897, to be precise), the decision was still taken to use asbestos fake snow in one of the movie’s key scenes.
The fake snow created contained 100% industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos fibres, and anybody who came into contact with this material inhaled it in quantities similar to those working in asbestos mines.
Primarily used in construction materials, this type of asbestos is different from “blue” and “brown” asbestos (known as crocidolite and amosite, respectively). However, exposure to all kinds of asbestos fibres can cause serious health problems, including mesothelioma – a rare and deadly form of cancer.
Fortunately, asbestos fake snow was a seasonal product, thus resulting in limited exposure. Nevertheless, any level of exposure to asbestos can have serious health consequences. This begs the question: Why exactly was asbestos used to create fake snow, as opposed to other, less-harmful substances?
From the mid-1930s until the 1950s, asbestos was seen to be a highly versatile substance, with very little knowledge of the true, perilous underbelly of the material. At the time, the material was very inexpensive to use for prop production. It also did not pose much of a fire hazard, and demonstrated a great resemblance to real snow. Resultantly, many manufacturers took advantage of this, selling the product under trade names such as Pure White, White Magic, and Snow Drift.
Until the late 1920s, cotton batting was the main component of fake snow. This is a relatively harmless material, but the mild fire risk posed by cotton batting led a firefighter to advise against the use of this material in fake snow. Instead, the firefighter recommended the use of chrysotile asbestos as an alternative.
Interestingly, it was only the outbreak of World War II that brought a halt to the use of asbestos in fake snow, with the material being in high demand for military operations, including for use on ships, planes, and tanks. Manufacturers then reverted to cotton as the main component in fake snow, which is, overall, a lot less harmful and hazardous than using asbestos in fake snow.
Although none of the main actors in The Wizard of Oz are believed to have died from any asbestos-related cause, it is sadly worth noting that Jack Haley Jr, an award-winning director and son of Jack Haley (who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz), died after experiencing ‘respiratory failure’ in 2001, at the age of 67. This raised question marks over whether it could have been mesothelioma, caused by his father bringing home asbestos dust during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz was not the only blockbuster movie that saw the use of asbestos fake snow. This also occurred in another film of that era – 1954 movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby, with the film’s final scene showing heavy snowfall (created from asbestos fake snow), as Bing sang White Christmas.
Modern fake snow products no longer use asbestos. With the great depth of knowledge that we currently possess about asbestos and the risks it poses, plus legislation banning its use, commercial exploitation of the resource is becoming less prevalent, and rightfully so.