Asbestos in fake snow – Wizard of Oz 1939

The cast of the 1939 Wizard of Oz Film being covered in chrysotile asbestos fake snow products

Do you remember the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz? Do you remember the scene in which Dorothy an her companions, having been placed under a sleep spell by the Wicked Witch, began getting snowed on whilst lying unconsious in a poppy field?  Or another film of that era – Holiday Inn starring Bing Corsby with the final scene depicting snow falling all around as Bing sang White Christmas?
The snow effects in both films were infact created by showering the cast with chrysotile asbestos fibres, which resembles snow and was often used in those days not only on movie sets and in theatres but in department stores and even in provate homes. From the mid 1930s through to the 1950s, asbestos was seen as a very versatile and harmless substance, it was also very cheap!

Modern fake snow products no longer use asbestos but for many years fake snow products were made by a large number of manufacturers under trade names such as “Pure White”, “White Magic”, “Snow Drift” to name but a few. Ironically, it was only n the advice of a firefighter in the late 1920s that fake snow production switched from cotton batting as a material (harmless, if a mild fire risk) to chrysotile asbestos. The outbreak of World War II ended the use of asbestos for fake snow production, as the material was needed for ships, planes and other military applications.

It is difficult to estimate the hazard that was presented by asbestos based fake snow products. Most asbestos applications involved some quantity of the fibre being used within a machine component or as a part of a chemical compound that bound the fibres up, making them difficult to inhale until the material became worn or damaged. Fake snow, however was simply pure white asbestos fibres piled up into drifts around displays or in the homes of many. Children played with it. Anyone who had contact with this material was inhaling it in quantities associated with working in asbestos mines. Fortunately asbestos fake snow was a seasonal product with limited exposure. Temporary or one-time exposure is less dangerous than ongoing and continuous exposure.

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