Asbestos in Fake Snow
“Fake snow” is nothing new. People have been attempting to either create or simulate snow since at least the last decades of the 19 th century. At that time, it was made from cotton batting in a factory located, ironically enough, in Quebec , Canada . Other methods of creating fake snow included the use of jeweler’s cotton, popcorn, Epsom salts, ammonia and mica.
Then, in 1928, a fire fighter wrote an article on the subject in which he advised not to use flammable cotton. “Use asbestos snow and mica.”
Chrysotile, or “white” asbestos, does indeed resemble the real thing. Throughout the late 1920s and 30s, artificial snow was marketed under dozens of brand names: “White Magic,” “Pure White,” and “Snow Drift.” Those who were aware of the hazards of asbestos and remember the famous “Poppy Field” scene in the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz (in which Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale fell asleep) will be appalled to know that the “snow” used in those camera shots was made from 100% industrial grade chrysotile asbestos – despite the fact that the health hazards of asbestos had been known for several years (the Wicked Witch of the West had nothing on Johns-Manville)!
The outbreak of the Second World War and the demand for asbestos as fireproofing in sea-going vessels and other military applications put an end to the market for asbestos “snow”. Since then, other types of fake snow have come on the market, made from various substances;according to a chemistry professor who maintains an on-line blog, it’s possible to make artificial snow at home from polyacrylate (used in disposable diapers and as soil conditioners) and water.
The chrysotile asbestos used in artificial snow 70 – 80 years ago was also used extensively in construction materials. This type of asbestos is different from “blue” and “brown” asbestos (known as crocidolite and amosite, respectively). Chrysotile comes from a type of rock known as serpentine. Unlike the amphibole blue and brown varieties, chrysotile fibers are soft and curly. This however does not make them any less dangerous. While these fibers may not puncture the lung tissue as is the case of cancer-causing amphiboles, they are highly abrasive, causing scar-tissue to build up inside the alveoli (air sacs), robbing the victim of lung capacity in a condition known as asbestosis. The silicate mica that was sometimes mixed in causes a similar condition called silicosis.