Health & Safety

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Asbestos Danger from WW2 Gas Masks

13 December 2013

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. Many millions were manufactured and one company in Blackburn, Lancashire had a contract from the government in 1936 to make 70 million and production continued throughout the war.

Gas Mask and accessories

By the end of 1939 some 40 million gas masks had been given out, house to house, to families. The Armed Forces and military personnel were also issued with another version of gas mask.

Everyone in Britain was given a gas mask in a cardboard box, to protect them from gas bombs, which could be dropped during air raids but fortunately they were never to be needed. However many of these gas masks survive today and are sold as collectable items. They are found at militaria fairs, army surplus stores, antique and collectable shops, junk shops and in recent times, growing numbers are appearing for sale on the internet marketing websites such as 'eBay'.

Possibility of Blue Asbestos

The vast majority of WW2 gas masks contain Asbestos in the filter, quite often blue asbestos, a category one carcinogen. The widespread sale and ignorance of the risks associated with these masks has recently alerted Trade Unions, Asbestos and Health Campaigners of the need to raise awareness of the dangers posed by these old war relics as well as raise the matter with employers, politicians and enforcement agencies.

It is unknown how long for certain Asbestos was used in Gas Mask filters. Breathing blue asbestos in the war time gas mask factories resulted in the death of 10% of the workforce due to pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. This rate was three times the normal incidence of lung or respiratory cancers. Additionally, nearly all Russian 'cold war period' (1947-1991) gas masks, now common in army surplus stores around the world contain asbestos. The GP-5 model was found to have a filter made of 7.5 percent asbestos. Modern gas masks do not use asbestos.

An added concern for the CWU is of course the increasing number of internet, on-line sales of gas masks which are sent via the post and could pose a risk to CWU members if not safely and securely packaged. Over 1,300 Gas Masks were sold on eBay since 22 August 2013 and sales are currently averaging a worrying 500 a month. The condition of these 70 years old gas masks is often poor due to corrosion or damage with the consequent increased risk of leakage of Asbestos fibres, further exacerbating the problem.

Prohibited and Restricted Goods

Royal Mail's 'Prohibited and Restricted' Goods rules bans the use of Royal Mail services for sending Asbestos Containing Materials and Items such as gas masks and following meetings between the CWU Health, Safety and Environment Department and the Royal Mail Group Dangerous Goods Director and Royal Mail Security, the rules have been reinforced and eBay and other internet market website operators are being told to warn their customers and traders not to use Royal Mail to send gas masks and other dangerous goods through the post to any purchasers and secondly eBay have been told to remove Royal Mail services from the offending Auction Listings on the eBay site. eBay also agreed to place a warning on its site.

The Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation, places restrictions on the sale and supply of products that contain asbestos, making it illegal to sell or transfer any items containing asbestos. The regulations will apply to Second World War gas masks, if they contain asbestos.

Dangers, Precautions and Advice

Experts looking at the danger of asbestos posed by World War II gas masks state that these asbestos containing masks, some of which are now more than 70 years old, can be found in a poor state of decay and deterioration. Tests have shown that if they are worn, people are likely to inhale asbestos fibres. The masks, the filters and carrying bags can also be contaminated and should not be handled. 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 or handling the mask, however briefly, is at high risk of inhaling the asbestos fibres.

The Health Protection Agency advises people not to wear WW2 gas masks because they may contain asbestos that can cause serious respiratory diseases. The asbestos material should be removed by a specialist contractor. Local authorities are 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 state 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 a specialist asbestos contractor. If in doubt, the best advice is to isolate in a sealed plastic bag and not use.

The Health & Safety Executive warns that 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.

Probably the best advice for those who come into contact with or own an old gas mask would be to follow safety guidelines, stop using the masks immediately and contact the local authority for advice on how to safely dispose of the masks, filters and canvas carrying bags or storage boxes.

CWU Letter to Parcel Carriers Safety Association

A letter has been sent to the Parcel Carriers Safety Association (PCSA). It is hoped that all PCSA members (Tuffnells Parcels Express, DX, Geopost, City Link, Hermes, UKMail, FedEx, TNT, APC Overnight, UPS, Office Depot, SG World, Yodel) will follow the Royal Mail lead and ban the carriage of Asbestos contaminated Gas Masks and that beyond that, hopefully eBay and other internet market sites will ban the sale of these items. We will continue to apply pressure and campaign for that objective.