Can Asbestos in World War II Gas Masks Cause Harm?

Many people are using World War II gas masks as a novelty item unaware that they may contain harmful asbestos. Every citizen in Great Britain, including infants were issued with a gas mask in 1939, (start of Second World War) as protection against mustard gas attacks by Germany. The masks – made of black rubber, glass visor and mouthpiece which contained a perforated tin (formed in the shape of a tin can) and a block of asbestos. The asbestos block was added to absorb and filter out poisonous gases allowing the wearer safer breathing.

Why Is The Asbestos in Gas Masks Harmful?

Asbestos consists of fibres which when inhaled into the lungs can lead to asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. The minute fibers are capable of stimulating chronic inflammatory responses in the pleura, (cavity that surrounds the lungs) and inducing an array of cellular responses, such as interfering with the mesothelial cells, and damaging DNA that regulates cell division.

World War II gas masks were manufactured using two types of asbestos – ‘crocidolite’ (blue asbestos) and chrysotile (white asbestos). Blue asbestos is considered to be deadlier than white asbestos, but the carcinogenic risk from white asbestos classifies it as a number 1 human carcinogen, as there is sufficient clinical evidence of asbestos related disease among people that have had exposure to it.

A collection of World War II gas masks had to be removed from Gunnersbury Park Museum recently. There were health and safety concerns regarding asbestos fibres being released during visitor handling. The gas masks were decontaminated at a specialised asbestos removal unit and returned to the museum.

What Safety Precautions Can I Take If I Own a Word War II Gas Mask?

Although people feared the use of chemical weapons in World War II – It never materialised. A lot of gas masks were donated to museums. However, some people have managed to purchase them from second hand shops and auction internet sites such as Ebay. World War II gas masks are over 60 years old and the older asbestos is – the more friable it becomes (easily crumbles), making it more hazardous as more fibres are easily released through disintegration.

If you are in possession of a World War II gas mask, the best thing to do, until you have the asbestos removed professionally, is not to handle it or try the mask on, and place it in an enclosed bag or container.

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