Gas Mask Dangers

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01 March 2011
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GAS MASK DANGERS Collectors warned of health and legal risks ...

After the widespread use of poison gas in the Great War it was expected that gas would also be a major factor in WWII so civilians as well as military personnel were provided with gas masks.

One can only hazard a guess at how many millions were manufactured but a company in Blackburn, Lancashire had a contract from the government in 1936 to make 70 million and production continued throughout the war.

However these collectable items, found at just about every militaria fair, may conceal a hidden danger from asbestos as the filter degrades releasing fibres into the mask and its container.

And now this is not the only risk to buyers and sellers – a recent EU regulation called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) makes it illegal to sell or transfer any items containing asbestos.

The health risks from asbestos used in gas mask filters – chrysotile (white asbestos) for civilian respirators and crocidolite (blue asbestos) for those equipping the armed forces – only came to light post-war when factory workers making the masks started showing abnormally high numbers of deaths from cancer.

Why is asbestos dangerous? The Health & Safety Executive website warns: “Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to asbestos-related diseases, mainly cancers of the lungs and chest lining. Asbestos is only a risk to health if asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in. Past exposure to asbestos currently kills around 4,000 people a year in Great Britain. This number is expected to go on rising at least until 2016.

There is no cure for asbestos-related diseases. There is usually a long delay between first exposure to asbestos and the onset of disease. This can vary from 15 to 60 years.”

John Wilson has tried to raise awareness of the potential dangers to collectors. “With a background in the NHS, working at the ‘sharp end’ for 30 years, I was surprised that blue asbestos was sold without restriction after visiting a militaria show in Liverpool.

“At that show I saw a fellow buy a WW2 gas mask for his son, who would be about 9 or 10. The boy was keen to try it on there and then, and soon set off around the hall wearing it. I mentioned that the mask contained asbestos to his father, who immediately returned it to the stallholder.

“It made me think about the issue, and what I have learnt since about the widespread sale and ignorance of the risks associated with these masks has, I suppose, made me into a bit of a ‘campaigner’, although I am not fond of the term!

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“Basically the situation is that the vast majority of WW2 gas masks contain asbestos in the filter, quite often blue asbestos, a category one carcinogen.

“Over time two things happen – firstly asbestos changes to become finer, the dust is able to pass through gas mask filters more easily, and is sometimes found in gas mask cases. Secondly, the structural integrity of the mask degrades, filters collapse, steel canisters corrode and hoses split. This results in asbestos being released from the mask and contaminating the surroundings, and anyone wearing the mask, however briefly, is at high risk of inhaling the asbestos fibres.”

A spokesman for The Health Protection Agency advises people not to wear WW2 gas masks because they may contain asbestos that can cause respiratory diseases. As risks increase with exposure, wearing the mask once is likely to be of low risk, but should nevertheless be avoided.

“If the mask becomes damaged, the asbestos material could be removed by a specialist contractor. Local authorities should be able to provide lists of licensed specialists who are able to do this. People should not try to dismantle these gas masks by themselves.”

The Imperial War Museum’s conservation team said that collectors first need to confirm that a gas mask contains asbestos.

“Confirming the integrity of the asbestos and/or undertaking any interventive work should only be undertaken under the guidance of aspecialist asbestos contractor. If in doubt, the best advice is to isolate in a sealed plastic bag and not use.”

• We would welcome comments and further information from collectors, especially those familiar with different types of masks, both Axis and Allied, and their methods of construction.