Asbestos in Helmets and other Fire Safety Gear
An asbestos helmet was part of the asbestos fire suit worn by industrial workers, military personnel, firefighters and motorsport enthusiasts throughout much of the 20th century. There were several styles available, some of which were quite stylish like a pith helmet or sou'wester; others were cumbersome devices that covered the entire head with a clear opening from which to see. Some were soft, while others were made of more rigid material.
The need for asbestos helmets became more urgent by the late 1930s when the helmets were standard issue in firefighting teams at military and civilian airfields. Fire-resistant suits underwent a continuing evolution all through the 20th century and helmets were an important part of that safety equipment ensemble.
The exposure danger from asbestos helmets (the asbestos fibers could be found in the lining) occurred when the materials began to fray, releasing the fibers into the immediate environment. This fraying process would occur when the helmets were used in high-temperature environments (such as a fire or in a fiery crash), or when they were mechanically damaged or punctured upon impact or if they simply became worn with age.
Hazards Associated with Asbestos Helmet Products
Firemen and other rescue workers, members of military damage control teams, race car drivers, and pilots were the groups most likely to wear and use asbestos helmets. Active use of intact helmets probably would not have exposed the wearer to a high level of asbestos risk, as when intact asbestos fibers are much less dangerous. However, dealing with used helmets, or wearing helmets as they became damaged by high heat, would have exposed the wearer to significantly higher levels of asbestos fibers. When asbestos-containing materials are damaged or become worn, the individual fibers become “friable,” meaning that they can be easily broken off and inhaled. It is inhalation of asbestos that poses the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-induced conditions.Sources
Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (New York: Touchstone, 2003)
N/A. (1936, November). The Modern Fire-Walkers. Popular Mechanics, 66(5), 153-154A.