Nothing illustrates the sheer lack of asbestos awareness of the health risks that exposure to the deadly material would bring to countless thousands of people who continue to suffer today than its’ use as fake snow during the Christmas season.
Asbestos material was a primary source for a huge range of commonly available products and applications throughout the peak period of twentieth century manufacture, right up until banning legislation began to be enforced from the 1970s and 80s onwards.
Medical research from the late 1920s began to identify the fibrous thickening and scarring caused by asbestos fibres found lodged in the lungs as asbestosis, and by the mid 1930s, physicians noticed patients with asbestosis symptoms also succumbed to lung cancer.
By the 1940s and 50s, records show that industrial manufacturers were becoming increasingly aware of the serious health hazards posed by asbestos exposure and the fatal consequences of the incurable malignant cancer, mesothelioma. However, many employers chose to conceal the information from their workforce and to the public at large.
As a relatively inexpensive insulator and fire retardant, asbestos was actually considered a safe material to be used for all manner of commonly available items, as well as being standard in heavy industry and engineering, such as shipbuilding, vehicle assembly and commercial building.
Typical examples of where products containing asbestos would find their way into the average household would be, for example, in cigarette filters, irons, oven gloves, hair dryers, potting mixtures and even talcum powder. Asbestos was also commonly available to buy as fake snow when Christmas tree ‘flocking’ began to be popular from around the 1940s and 50s.
Fake snow made with asbestos was also typical in the movie and theatre industry! Two notable examples where ‘asbestos’ snow was used was in the poppy field scene in the 1939 film, the Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, and in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, where the biggest selling Christmas song of all time “White Christmas” was first sung. It was not a grimly ironic reference to the white asbestos form, chrysotile.
However, at that time the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma cancer had not been clearly established, which eventually led to asbestos being mostly removed from fake snow mixtures and later, aerosol cans. It should be noted that fake snow spray containing asbestos can still be found in some rare instances.
Today fake snow and Christmas tree flocking can be made from materials like super absorbent polymers with added water or a derivative of wood, called cellulose, with water, spray adhesive and, in many cases, a different type of fire retardant, which is, thankfully, not asbestos!