We all know the benefits that a prop may bring to a teacher in a history lesson to aid students with the learning process as they get to physically see and feel the item themselves to get a better understanding of what the teacher is explaining. But when the subject is WWII this could be a potentially hazardous subject to both students and teachers, especially if the item of that period is a WWII Mask.
Why would a WWII Gas Mask be dangerous?
WWII gas masks are potentially dangerous as they can contain and release asbestos fibres. They can also be contaminated with harmful chemicals from previous use in gas drills. In addition some post war gas masks can release asbestos fibres and can be contaminated.
Tests have shown that asbestos fibres can be inhaled by wearing the masks. Asbestos fibres can also be released from handling the masks, filters or carrying bag.
So why use asbestos in gas masks?
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.
How many gas masks were produced and what types of asbestos were used?
It is difficult to put an exact number on how many of these asbestos containing gas masks were manufactured but to put it in perspective one company in Blackburn, Lancashire had a contract from the government in 1936 to make 70 million and production continued throughout the war.
There were two main types of asbestos used during the manufacture of these gas masks: Chrysotile (white asbestos) for civilian respirators and Crocidolite (blue asbestos) for those equipping the armed forces. The health risks associated with these masks 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.”
What should a school or a collector do if they own one of these Asbestos containing Gas Masks?
The local authority should be contacted for advice on how to safely dispose of the masks, filters and the canvas bags. In 2004 the Imperial War Museum had issued the following guidance to their staff:
“Most British gas masks of WW2 vintage have asbestos (blue and/or white) as a component in their filters… Where unsure, it should be assumed that the filters do contain asbestos until proven otherwise. The filters may, in any case, contain other respiratory irritants. Thus no gas mask of WW2 vintage should ever be worn.
There is a further health and safety issue with gas masks that have been exposed to chemicals eg used in ‘live’ gas tests and drills. Such gas masks should not be handled and should not go on display. They should be sealed in polyethylene bags (at least two layers) or an airtight inert container. This should be carried out in a fume cupboard, whilst wearing latex or nitrile gloves and a lab coat. The gloves should be disposed of and the lab coat disposed of/laundered after use. The enclosures should be labelled to indicate that they contain materials that are potentially hazardous and should not be opened. Any further enclosures that they are placed into, eg boxes, should be appropriate labelled as described above.