Unlikely Uses of Asbestos: Fake Snow and The Wizard of Oz

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Guest Post

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.

What Actually is Asbestos?

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The subject of asbestos has been open to rumour, conjecture and hearsay for generations. With so many horror stories appearing on television and in newspapers, it can be difficult to penetrate the urban myth and discover the facts about this hazardous substance.

So, what actually is asbestos, after all?

The term refers to a set of six naturally occurring silicate materials that all share a similar structure of long, thin crystals. Asbestos fibres are invisible to the human eye, but are potentially fatal when inhaled after disturbance.

The substance has been mined for thousands of years, with various generations creating different uses for it, typically within the construction trade.

The Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all experimented with asbestos in some form, extolling its virtues as a phenomenal insulator. Later, asbestos use soared in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, with a surge in machinery and steam power necessitating controls on heat generation.

In subsequent eras, asbestos was mixed into thousands of different products, from cements and insulating boards to textured coating sprays and beyond. The relative cheapness of asbestos, coupled with its many desirable qualities, made it extremely popular. The substance has a phenomenal tensile strength and is resistant to electricity. For many decades, people hailed it as a ‘wonder substance,’ until knowledge of its toxicity became widespread.

When disturbed, asbestos becomes extremely dangerous. Inhalation of airborne fibres can cause many different diseases, while a long latency period can affect people up to 60 years after exposure.

Asbestos is a carcinogen, and is strongly linked to two types of cancer: mesothelioma, a fatal disease of the lung lining, and asbestos-related lung cancer.

Asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, is also attributable to asbestos. So is diffuse pleural thickening, where membranes within the lungs and chest wall expand.

The battle to outlaw asbestos was long and winding. The first documented death relating to the substance occurred in 1906, but regulations to limit exposure were not enacted until decades later. A final United Kingdom ban on the supply and use of asbestos came in 1999.

Nevertheless, estimates suggest that nearly 2 million properties across the land may still contain asbestos. The material could be present in any building built or refurbished prior to the final ban, so effective identification and management remains a pivotal priority.

That’s where North Star Environmental plays an indispensable role in the fight for a safer world. Using over a century of combined industry experience, our staff provides expert advice and elite services.

From asbestos surveys and air monitoring through to accredited laboratory testing and management consultation, plus much more, we pride ourselves on delivering a personalised yet professional service.

We push the boundaries of innovation in compliance with all domestic legislation and the highest international standards, acting as a crucial linchpin in the quest for environmental harmony.

To learn more about asbestos, or to arrange a no obligation quote for comprehensive services from an industry powerhouse, contact our dedicated team today.

North Star Environmental. Where excellence meets integrity.