When Asbestos Was Used As Fake Snow

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, January 16, 2016
Danger Asbestos yellow warning tape close up
“All these Science Spheres are made of asbestos by the way, keeps out the rats. Let us know if you feel a shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, or your heart stopping. Because that’s not part of the test, that’s asbestos.” —Cave Johnson, “Portal 2”

In A Nutshell

Throughout the 1930s, film companies were taking the advice of a well-meaning firefighter who had been concerned about the safety hazard presented by using flammable cotton for snow. Why not get rid of the fire hazard and use asbestos? Movies like The Wizard of Oz did just that, covering their stars in pure asbestos that was marketed with names like “Pure White.” The popularity of asbestos as snow spread to home use, and it could still be found in heirloom Christmas decorations.

The Whole Bushel

The movie industry is famous for its sleight of hand tricks, especially back in the golden age of cinema. Chocolate sauce becomes blood, we know, but what was used when they needed snow?

That was asbestos.

We saw it most famously in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy was covered in the stuff while she was lying in a field of flowers. If you’ve ever seen the film clip of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, that’s asbestos, too.

Today, the idea of covering someone with asbestos to simulate snow is pretty horrifying, but the dangers weren’t known at the time. In the 1920s, the default material for on-screen snow was cotton, until firefighting consultants warned of the increased risk of fire on a set that was covered with cotton.

Asbestos, seen as a safer alternative to the highly flammable cotton, stepped in to fill the void. Considering that cotton is absolutely harmless when it comes to health and isn’t much of a fire risk, this was unfortunate. Asbestos was marketed with innocent-sounding names like “Snow Drift” and “Pure White.”

The movies weren’t the only place to use asbestos to simulate snow. If you have any heirloom Christmas ornaments, you might want to think twice before using them. White asbestos—also called chrysotile—is fireproof, making it ideal for all kinds of Christmas situations.

It was “safe” to put on ornaments that would have been exposed to the heat of lights and candles, and it was also seen as safe to pile up around the tree for an indoor snow effect. Cover the tree, sprinkle some on wreaths and garland . . . you could even add some to decorative candleholders with no fear that it was going to catch on fire.

That means that it’s highly possible that any heirloom ornaments or other decorations that have been handed down through the family since the 1930s or 1940s still carry with them a deadly passenger.

Asbestos has been mined and used since the late 1800s, and it remained a hugely popular construction and wartime material throughout World War II. In the late 1970s, asbestos bans gained momentum. It was first outlawed for use in fireplaces and patching compounds, and it was completely banned in 1989.

It is, of course, incredibly bad for you, associated with all different types of cancer and specifically with lung problems.

In 1940, the Raybestos-Manhattan Corporation used safety as its angle for marketing its fake snow product, stating in its advertising that it was completely safe for all holiday decorations. And that’s gotten the company into continued problems, considering it used asbestos in a huge number of its products from car brake systems to its fake snow.

Forty-year president Sumner Simpson has been the target of numerous lawsuits, with court cases bringing some less-than-reputable information to light. The health dangers of asbestos exposure had been circling for a long time, and the courts showed that Simpson had known about the questions as he kept his company running along the asbestos highway.

In 1982, the company became Raymark, but the lawsuits kept coming. Raymark went through bankruptcy, recovered, and maintains a trust fund for asbestos-related injury lawsuits.

Show Me The Proof

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance: Fake Snow
The Mesothelioma Center: Christmas Decorations in the Attic Might Be Sprinkled with Asbestos; Raybestos-Manhattan & Raymark Industries
OCS: Hidden Asbestos
National Cancer Institute: Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk
Popular Mechanics: How Hollywood Fakes Winter on Film