In 2014 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advised schools of the potential asbestos dangers of war artefacts and memorabilia.
In particular, the HSE was concerned with gas masks and helmets. Tests carried out on vintage gas masks showed that the majority of masks contained asbestos in the filters. Perhaps more alarmingly, more often than not it was crocidolite or blue asbestos that was found. This is thought to be the most dangerous form of asbestos. Of the masks tested by the HSE, only a minority did not contain asbestos and they have been unable to identify any particular makes or models that definitely do or do not contain asbestos.
The HSE has also had advice from the Imperial War Museum in relation to British Army ‘Brodie’ helmets. The majority of these helmets that were issued in the First World War have been found to contain chrysotile or white asbestos linings.
Schools often use war memorabilia such as helmets and gas masks when teaching children about the First and Second World Wars.
To address the issue of asbestos in the artefacts, the HSE wrote to schools advising of the dangers and providing advice for how such items should be dealt with,
“They should be double bagged in plastic which should be taped shut, appropriately labelled and securely stored while arrangements are made for either disposal through your Local Authority’s licensed disposal site, or made safe by a licensed contractor by, for example, encapsulation such that they can be safely displayed e.g. in an appropriate labelled cabinet.”
While teachers and historians agree that the safety of children is the foremost concern, it would be a shame if any items that could be made safe were destroyed.
A spokesperson for the Historical Association urged schools to treat the artefacts with care:
“Schools shouldn’t panic if they have any of these items, they should hand them into museums and then museums can ensure they are treated properly.”
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, identified the importance of such artefacts as teaching aids and advised that they should be kept rather than destroyed:
“They need to be made safe if there is a question about safety, but they shouldn’t, in my view, be destroyed. They should be adapted because it is important children understand how these things were used.”
If you have any concerns about artefacts containing asbestos you should contact your local museum for advice.
Image credits: War Relics Forum – www.warrelics.eu