war time gas mask
Teachers have been warned not to use wartime helmets or gas masks as props in their classes for fear that some may contain asbestos fibres.

The Health and Safety Executive has advised schools to destroy or make the artefacts safe following tests to look for asbestos fibres and advice from the Imperial War Museum.

Historians and teachers’ groups have said while pupils’ safety is paramount, the artefacts are an important aid for teaching pupils about the Home Front and it would be ‘terrible’ if those which could be made safe were destroyed.

In a letter to schools, the HSE said the artefacts should be double-bagged and destroyed unless a licensed contractor could make them safe.

The letter said: ‘Schools that have any of these items of war memorabilia that are suspected to contain asbestos should remove them from use.

‘They should be double bagged in plastic which should be taped shut, appropriately labelled and securely stored while arrangements are made for either disposal through your Local Authority’s licensed disposal site, or made safe by a licensed contractor by for example encapsulation such that they can be safety displayed e.g. in an appropriate labelled cabinet.’

The advice comes after the HSE carried out tests on vintage gas masks, the majority of which contained asbestos in the filters, often the more dangerous crocidolite, or blue asbestos.

The HSE said only a minority of those tested did not contain asbestos and it was not possible to say which models do, or do not, contain asbestos.

It also received advice from the Imperial War Museum which said their policy was to assume any gas mask contained asbestos and so should not be worn and only handled if certified as safe.

The museum also said the majority of the British Army ‘Brodie’ helmets, issued during the First World War, contained chrysotile, or white asbestos, in the liner.

Paula Kitching, of the Historical Association, which supports history teachers in secondary and further education, said while pupils’ safety was paramount, it would be ‘terrible’ if the artefacts were destroyed when they could be made safe.

She said: ‘Schools shouldn’t panic if they have any of these items, they should hand them into museums and then the museums can ensure they are treated properly.

‘We wouldn’t want schools to panic but the report indicates that the materials can be made safe and if that is the case then we would advise schools to hand them in.’

Ms Kitching said the gas masks and helmets were most likely to be part of handling collections at museums.
She said: ‘It is unlikely, not impossible, but unlikely the schools will have them themselves, so it would be up to the local museums to decide how to make them safe.’

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign For Real Education, said the artefacts were a valuable teaching aid.

He said: ‘My view is that they are important to keep and of course they need to be safe and I would say we do not wish to see all of these things destroyed because if we start destroying gas masks then we will end up destroying half the artefacts in museums across the world because they are full of weapons.

‘They need to be made safe if there is a question about safety, but they shouldn’t, in my view, be destroyed.

‘They should be adapted because it is important children understand how these things were used.’