Gas Masks, D-Day and the Asbestos Hazard 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Everyone will have an opinion on how chronological landmarks for the two World Wars should be marked. This Friday (June 6, 2014), Queen Elizabeth will be joining French President François Hollande in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Shortly afterwards, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I will take place (July 28, 2014). Public events, exhibitions, conferences, TV programs, concerts and other activities are being planned to mark that and other WW1 events over the coming years.

In the UK, many schools will be running themed projects and lessons to tie in with these anniversaries. As this generation of schoolchildren is so far removed from the actual events which took place, attempts will be made to visualize the impact the wars had on everyday life, including that of the country’s children. The use of historical artefacts, such as ration books, is a popular way to help students understand the wartime reality. Two of the most iconic of wartime memorabilia are World War 1 steel (Brodie) helmets and World War II gas masks.1


A google search this morning revealed that such items can easily and cheaply be obtained from UK suppliers. Unlike Australia, which banned gas masks with asbestos breathing devices in 1993, there is no such specific UK legislation, although the sale, supply or use asbestos-contaminated products is prohibited under The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999.2 For this reason attempts have been made by UK campaigners, led by the Asbestos in Schools Group and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, to obtain categorical statements from the authorities warning of the asbestos hazard in such items.

Last month (May, 2014) the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), provided definitive advice to the three Education Departments in Great Britain on “Gas Masks and Asbestos” which warned that:

“no gas masks should be worn or handled by children or teachers… [unless] clearly certified as safe to do so… the majority of the British Army (‘Brodie’) helmets… issued during the First World War, contain chrysotile (white) asbestos in the helmet liner… it is not appropriate for children or teachers to wear or handle any artefacts that potentially contain asbestos”3

It is surprising that it took the HSE so long to act. Letters, reports and guidance issued on this subject in the 1980s by the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down were unambiguous as was advice provided by the Imperial War Museum some while later:

  • Letter from the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down December 7, 1984 (see: Porton Down Letters 1984-2013, pages 4-5): “gas masks issued to the civilian population during WWII contained asbestos… The asbestos was of the blue [crocidolite] variety… Asbestos is likely to be present in the canisters of not only the WWII civilian masks but in any older UK gas mask and in many foreign masks… Gas masks or their canisters should not be given to children as toys…”
  • Report by the Chemical Defence Establishment, October 1989: Asbestos in World War II Respirator Canisters – “The majority of British Service and Civilian respirator canisters manufactured just before and during the early years of World War II contained a particulate filter consisting of carded wool and asbestos in the proportion of about 80% wool to 20% asbestos…” The report estimates that of the 97 million WWII General Civilian Respirators produced before 1939, 40 million (43%) were made with asbestos. At the beginning of the war, General Service Respirators contained a particulate filter composed of 80% merino wool and 20% blue asbestos; it is believed 5 million were made. Production on the Small Child’s Respirator, known as the “Mickey Mouse,” began in February 1939; the standard particulate filter contained asbestos.
  • Guidance from the Imperial War Museum December 7, 2004: “Most British gas masks of WW2 vintage have asbestos (blue and/or white) as a component in their filters.”

It is not only vintage British gas masks that could be hazardous when handled by current populations according to the Porton Down scientists:

“During World War II the Military Intelligence branch of the War office issued reports on the chemical warfare equipment developed by the Germans (14), Japanese (15) and Italians (16). These reports indicate that with the exception of the Italians, who used resin-impregnated wool and viscose rayon as a particulate filter the use of asbestos-wool was common in WWII respirator canisters. Asbestos-wool was used in Soviet respirators in WWII and is still used.”

U.S. WWII gas masks were also made with asbestos and as asbestos remains legal in the United States, it is possible that the sale, supply and use of these hazardous items may pose a serious risk to people engaged in projects related to the upcoming anniversaries.

June 4, 2014


1 Historical Gas Mask Photos From WWII Britain Show Life During Wartime. January 6, 2014.

2 Gas masks with asbestos breathing devices.
[UK] The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999

3 HSE warning Gas masks May 9, 2014.



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