Asbestos is one material that refuses to be consigned to the past. It still has the ability to pose a health threat wherever asbestos dust is found. Discoveries can still be regularly reported at one of the estimated 8 in ten of school buildings as well as other council properties across Britain, which still contain the potentially deadly fibre insulation.

Compared to the widespread lack of knowledge or indifference in previous decades to the dangers of exposure, today the level of asbestos awareness means many more concerned groups are alert to the slightest safety risk.

One recent example of how simply suspecting the presence of asbestos can often raise an immediate alarm was the appearance of a Second World War gas mask on the popular Sunday night BBC programme, the Antiques Roadshow.

Many products unexpectedly contained asbestos

It is generally forgotten that during the peak period of Britain’s asbestos use, until the late 1970s and early 80s, more than 300 products made from asbestos fibres could be commonly found both at home and in the workplace. Many products unexpectedly contained asbestos including, oven gloves, curtains, clothes irons, hair dryers, potting mixtures, talcum powder and popcorn.

By the outbreak of the Word War Two in September 1939 around 38 million gas masks had been issued to British households right across the country, which included separate masks to be worn by either children or babies. Breathing-in caused air to be inhaled through the filter to exhale the gas, and breathing-out forced the whole mask to be pushed away from the face to let the air out.

Three times the normal incidence of lung or respiratory cancers

The masks were made of black rubber, which could be unpleasant to use due to the smell of the rubber and disinfectant However, the masks could potentially be life threatening too. What was not generally known or understood at the time was that the masks contained blue ‘crocidolite’ asbestos in their filters.

An 1982 study of female workers at factories producing the masks using both blue and white ’chrysotile’ asbestos filters revealed that 10 per cent of the workforce had died due to mesothelioma of either the lung or stomach linings. The mortality rate was between two and three times the normal incidence of lung or respiratory cancers.

More than 70 years later, there could still be a number of gas masks, some unused, which were originally stored away in people’s household attics, basements or garages. The masks are often forgotten about until discovered by family members often decades later, also unaware the filters are likely to be made of asbestos.

No mention or warning about asbestos in the mask

One member of the public interested to find out more about the origins and history of the gas mask came along to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, regularly watched by more than five million viewers every Sunday evening.

However, asbestos victim support groups were horrified to see the mask – a type designed to be carried in a ladies handbag and described as a “real novelty” – was included in the programme. The mask, which had been bought for £25 was valued at £100. However, at no time, say the campaigners, was any mention or warning given about the likely presence and risks of asbestos in the filter despite the presenter handling the mask for camera close-ups.

Original gas masks on display

The dangers of asbestos in gas masks from both world wars were highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2014 as commemorations for the outbreak of WW1 began. Many schools had organised special educational programmes, which were likely to include visits to museums where original gas masks, likely to still containing their asbestos filters, would be on display.

The HSE issued guidance 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 did not contain asbestos. Analysis had found that the majority of the masks were found to contain asbestos, in particular, the more toxic blue ‘crocidolite’ asbestos, eventually banned from use in the mid-1980s. Researchers at HSE advised that only a few masks would not contain asbestos, but it was difficult to confirm by visual inspection alone as the majority were in very poor condition.

World War Two gas masks for sale online and at trade fairs

A potentially additional problem is an item of EU legislation, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which contains an exemption clause to allow the “placing on the market” of second hand asbestos-containing products, provided they were first put into service before 2005 and a high level of health protection would be maintained.

The products mostly involve cultural/heritage objects but also include collector items exchanged and traded in the public domain, including World War Two gas masks, which are in circulation for sale online and at trade fairs specialising in military memorabilia.

Following a number of complaints over featuring the gas mask, a BBC spokesman “welcomed the concern” of campaigners and thanked them for bringing the issue of asbestos in gas masks to their attention. An assurance was given that the programme makers would “ensure that viewers are made aware of the potential danger” if gas masks are featured in any future broadcast.