Throughout the run-up to this year’s commemorations of the First World War, which Britain entered on 4th August 1914, many schools would have organised special educational programmes. A list of activities would probably include visits to museums, field trips, re-enactments and other activities to help better convey the terrible reality and the suffering endured by British and allied soldiers on the battlefields of France and Belgium.

It is highly likely that many pupils would come into contact, perhaps for the first time, with memorabilia, historical artefacts and actual military equipment used in the fighting, such as the different types of gas masks worn by soldiers to protect against the various chemical agents that were used as the war continued. Although the first agent used was chlorine, the most effective was considered to be mustard gas, introduced in July 1917, prior to the battle of Ypres.

Masks worn during both WW1 and WW2

Many different types of filters and respirators were employed to protect the soldiers and even the horses from chemical agents, which also include asbestos fibre materials. As a result of improved asbestos awareness over the last fifty years, the presence of asbestos materials, which were used in the production of filters for masks worn during both World War One and World War Two, are likely to be on display in museums as well as in school and college collections, available for sale online and at trade fairs. There could also be a number of gas masks stored away and forgotten about in household attics, basements or garages.

In early May the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued guidance to the three education departments, reinforcing earlier advice that “it was not appropriate” for pupils or teachers to handle the gas masks unless it could be clearly shown that the particular mask does not contain asbestos.

Majority of Tommy helmets contain asbestos

HSE also instructed that it had “analysed a number of vintage helmets and gas masks at the request of the Department for Education (DfE)” and consulted with the Imperial War Museum over their policy on gas masks and on World War One British Army ‘Brodie” helmets on display. The Brodie helmet, made of steel and introduced in 1915, is probably better known as the Tommy helmet. Other names include the shrapnel helmet or tin hat.

According to HSE analysis, the majority of the masks were found to contain asbestos, in particular, the more toxic and highly dangerous blue ‘crocidolite’ asbestos. HSE researchers advise that only a few masks did not contain asbestos, but it was difficult to confirm by visual inspection alone as many were in very poor condition.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) advise that the majority of World War One Brodie helmets contain white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos in the lining. The museum also previously informed the HSE “that all gas masks of any vintage as well as all Brodie helmets should be assumed to contain asbestos, and potentially other toxic or hazardous materials”.

Replica gas masks available for teaching

Consequently, it is further stated that schools or colleges with masks and helmets in their collections “should not be worn”, and guidance should be sought from HSE for advice on how to remove and safely dispose of these items.” Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12 generally instructs that all asbestos containing materials should be “double-bagged”, removed and disposed of by licensed contractors.

However, HSE say the advice “does not tell schools to destroy all artefacts…schools can make masks and helmets safe to be handled or put them on display as alternatives to removing them from classroom use.” In addition, replica gas masks and ‘Brodie’ helmets that do not contain asbestos are available as teaching aids.

The potential risk of contracting asbestosis diseases or fatal mesothelioma cancers from asbestos exposure is almost entirely the result of long-term and sustained exposure and there are strict guidelines available, which set out maximum safe levels according to periods of exposure time.