In the past several decades, asbestos has been used in many different products that have helped make human life easier and safer. For instance, asbestos was used for fire fighting in many ways. The attire worn by fire fighters were made from asbestos fibers, which were extremely flame retardant and heat resistant. Electrical wires were insulated with asbestos in case of shortages. And in theatres, a special curtain called a fire curtain was stored in the rafters and could be dropped in case of a fire. Fire curtains also helped keep any stage fires away from the audience.
Fire curtains are typically used in large theatres and are located behind the proscenium arch. The proscenium arch is the archway directly in front of and above the stage. Fire curtains used to be made from asbestos fibers and were effective in putting out fires. However, as the dangers of asbestos began to become public knowledge, fire curtains made of asbestos were replaced with curtains made of iron or fiberglass. These are the materials that most fire curtains are made from today.
The real hazard of asbestos fire curtains is when they are being removed or used after a long period of sitting. The abrupt lowering of a fire curtain after it has sat in the rafters for years could cause the material to rip or shred, sending asbestos fibers into the air every which way.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged in the lungs and cause health problems later down the line. Asbestosis is a common problem for those frequently exposed to asbestos. It results in inflammation and scarring of the lungs, which can lead to severe breathing problems and even heart failure.
Several types of cancer have also been linked to asbestos exposure such as lung, stomach, esophageal and colorectal cancers. Lung cancer is the most common of these, and is made even more likely when a person smokes. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that can only be caused by asbestos exposure. It affects the membranes surrounding the chest and abdomen. Since the symptoms of asbestos exposure often don’t present itself for 30 years, when the symptoms do appear, the disease will have progressed to an advanced stage. This is why the prognosis for those diagnosed with mesothelioma is hardly ever positive.
While fire curtains provide only a minimal asbestos exposure risk to theatre patrons, they definitely posed a risk to those installing the curtains and removing them. Asbestos is seriously dangerous and should be treated as such.