For many years, asbestos has been utilised worldwide in a commercial setting, due to its cheap cost and its many sought after properties. Most famously used in the construction trade, asbestos has made an appearance in many successful movies – most notably The Wizard of Oz 1939 version.
Since the latter part of the 19th century, many people have used asbestos in an attempt to create artificial snowy scenes for many different purposes. These have included the use in films, theatre productions, and department stores.
In the famous poppy field scene in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and Tin Man are stood around Dorothy as she lays unconscious, the snow that was cascading down onto them was in fact chrysotile, a.k.a white asbestos fibres.
The fake snow was made up from industrial-grade white asbestos fibres, and unfortunately for the actors and production team, everyone who came into contact with it would have inhaled similar quantities to those working in a functioning asbestos mine.
Health concerns were documented as far back as 1897, yet the decision to use the lethal asbestos snow was still conducted. It’s low price was likely a contributing factor for its use.
Luckily, as fake snow is a seasonal product, the asbestos-version was not exposed to people all year round. However, it was readily available for domestic use under the brand names of White Magic, Snow Drift, and Pure White.
Up until the 1920s, cotton was the primary ingredient in fake snow. Although relatively harmless, the cotton posed as a high fire risk which led firefighters to recommend the use of asbestos, as a fire retardant alternative.
Amazingly, World War II was the primary reason for the halt of asbestos use in fake snow. This is because the material was in high demand for military use.
While none of the actors contracted any asbestos-related diseases within their lifetimes, Jack Haleys’s son, Jack Haley Jr, died in 2001 via respiratory complications. His death raised questions on whether it could have been linked to mesothelioma caused by his father bringing home his asbestos-dust contaminated clothes after filming.