Majority of wartime gas masks found to contain asbestos.November 13, 2014
Tests were carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that found filters of World War Two gas masks to contain dangerous levels of asbestos dust, causing the wearer to inhale asbestos fibres when the old masks are worn. Fibres can also be released simply from handling the masks, and the carrying bags that contain them. The masks may also have been exposed to other gases or irritants during past drills, and remnants of these may remain. The sale and postage of the masks, bags and filters is illegal, although some are still traded on EBay, and they are often found in school history departments, at museums, and may be used in historical demonstrations.
The HSE took advice from the Imperial War Museums about their policies toward the masks. Only a small minority of those tested were found not to contain asbestos; the Imperial War Museums advised that all gas masks should be assumed to contain asbestos as it is impossible to identify which models are safe and which ones are not. The masks may contain either white or blue asbestos, and there is a mesothelioma risk even with minimal exposure. The filters are particularly dangerous when split or worn from age.
There is also an asbestos risk when handling World War One British Army helmets, the majority of which the Imperial War Museum has warned contain chrysotile or white asbestos in the helmet lining.
Exposure to asbestos is significantly more dangerous for children, and a warning has been issued to teachers and schools over the use of the masks as learning props during history lessons. It is advised that children do not try on the masks, or handle them, the carrying bags or the filters.
The advice given by the HSE is that they can be made safe by being sealed; but that this must be done by a professional. Even after the asbestos has been removed however, it is advised that they are not worn or handled. Local authorities can be contacted for advice over the safe storage or disposal of the masks. The historical significance of the masks is emphasised, and it is stressed that panic over asbestos inhalation does not lead to the artefacts being destroyed. Precautions should also be taken with other, similar wartime masks which do not originate from the UK.
There have been various cases of people claiming compensation after they contracted illnesses related to assembling gas masks in factories during and after the Second World War. In 2013, a woman’s family was awarded nearly £48,000 in damages following her death in 2008. She worked stitching the asbestos filters into the masks, causing her to contract asbestosis. Although her death was unrelated to the asbestosis, she suffered debilitating symptoms due to it, and her quality of life was significantly affected.
Anthony McCarthy, Director Solicitor at Macks says, “The HSE have taken appropriate steps to deal with this potential problem. You can never be too careful when dealing with exposure to asbestos.”