asbestos in the workplace

The Wizard of Oz and asbestos in the workplace

As we enter the holidays, I’m sure many of us will be sitting down in front of the TV and watching some classic movies, many of them featuring fake snow.

What people may not know is that the fake snow in many of these old movies contained asbestos. One of the most notable uses of asbestos as fake snow was in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.

In the film, Dorothy – played by July Garland – along with the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man, were snowed on by chrysotile (or ‘white’) asbestos fibres, whilst Dorothy lay unconscious in a poppy field.

Primarily used in construction materials, this type of asbestos is different from ‘blue’ and ‘brown’ asbestos (known as crocidolite and amosite respectively). However, exposure to all kinds of asbestos fibres can cause serious health problems, including mesothelioma – a form of lung cancer that is known to kill around 2,500 people in the UK annually.

Given what we know today, it is hard to understand why such as dangerous substance was used in this way. Until the late 1920s, cotton batting was the main component of artificial snow. Whilst this is a relatively harmless material, there was a fire risk in using large quantities of cotton on a film set where there are lights and electrics which might provide an ignition source.  As a result, film studios were advised not to use cotton batting as fake snow with chrysotile asbestos being recommended as an alternative. Although, even at the time, it was known that asbestos could pose a risk to health, it was also inexpensive and didn’t pose a fire risk.

It was only the outbreak of World War II that brought a halt to the use of asbestos in fake snow. With its useful properties, asbestos was required in large quantities for the large numbers of ships, planes, and tanks manufactured in the United States between 1942 and 1945. As a result, film producers reverted to cotton batting as the main component in fake snow, which is, overall, a lot less harmful than using asbestos.

Although none of the main actors in The Wizard of Oz are believed to have died from any asbestos-related cause, it is worth noting that the son of the Jack Haley – who played the Tin Man in the film – died after from respiratory failure in 2001, at the age of 67. This may have been due to mesothelioma, caused by his father bringing home asbestos dust during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

However, Hollywood stars have suffered from exposure to asbestos. The most notable of these is Steve McQueen, who was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in December 1979 and died of cardiac arrest linked to the condition less than a year later at age 50. His cancer was traced to asbestos exposure from his time in the military prior to his acting career. McQueen recalled stripping asbestos off pipes in a ship’s engine room during his wartime service in the US Marine Corps.