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Many people know that asbestos, the only known cause of terminal mesothelioma cancer, has been used throughout history in many different ways: construction materials, fire-resistant devices, ship-building, and more.
However, what many people don’t know is that every year when they put up their holiday decorations, they could be exposing their friends and family to carcinogenic asbestos as well.
We’ve put together this guide to help you understand a little more about the dangers of asbestos and decorating for the holidays.
Decorations Stored in Attics
It’s important to be aware that any decorations stored in your attics or crawl spaces could contain asbestos.
It has been estimated that millions of homes across the country have asbestos in their attics, mostly in the form of vermiculite insulating material that mostly originated in Libby, Montana, until almost half of the small town was diagnosed with diseases caused by asbestos mining activities.
Unless you have had asbestos-laden insulation professionally removed and replaced, or an inspector has certified your attic as being asbestos-free, it may be wise to store your holiday decorations and other seasonal items someplace other than your attic.
One of the reasons asbestos became so popular as a construction material in the first place was because of its famous flame-resistant properties. Because of its inflammability and its nature as a fibrous mineral, asbestos has frequently been used in the past as fake snow.
The story of how asbestos was used as snow in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz is now somewhat famous. In that scene, Glinda the Good Witch employs a supernatural snowstorm to wake Dorothy up from the soporific effects of the poppies populating the fields outside the Emerald City.
A less magical story, however, is that of the millions of people who used asbestos-based snow as part of their holiday decorations for decades throughout the early part of the 20th century. Up until the 1940s – when most asbestos was diverted for use in naval ships during World War II – asbestos snow was used for decorating homes, schools, community centers, places of worship, and elsewhere across the country. Asbestos was literally spread out every holiday season for people to inhale during their celebrations.
In fact, fire marshals in the early part of the 20th century often advised people to use asbestos instead of cotton to decorate their trees, since asbestos was less flammable and allegedly looked better. It may have looked nice, but the long-lasting harmful effects are undoubtedly still affecting many people today.
Even when using fake snow that doesn’t contain asbestos, you should still be careful. The National Institutes of Health warn that while modern fake snow does not contain asbestos, it can still contain other harmful substances.
Vintage Decorations (and More)
In addition to using asbestos as snow on trees and elsewhere, it was used in manufacturing bulbs and wreaths. These old-time decorations often contained asbestos in the form of “frost” that clung to the surface of the decoration – as opposed to the fluffier effect of asbestos used as fake snow.
While much of the fake snow may have stopped being used in the 1940s, vintage bulbs and wreaths have longer lives. Many people may have inherited decorations from their parents and grandparents, and even today it’s possible a large number of decorations with asbestos frost on them are still being used each holiday season.
Asbestos was also commonly used in protective materials to help prevent potential fires and heat damage. Decorative products like patterned table covers, mats and skirts for Christmas trees frequently contained asbestos. Furthermore, such items were often marketed by manufacturers as ideas for gifts. Advertisements in early 20th century newspapers and magazines marketed asbestos-filled covers for tables, ironing boards, and more as “sensible presents” to give homemakers at Christmas.
Whether as decorations or as gifts, such items that were used and displayed on a daily basis in the home very likely led to potential health problems for many people.
Even if there is no asbestos in your decorations themselves, there’s still a potential danger lurking in many homes that can rear its ugly head when putting up your decorations.
One of the biggest asbestos dangers lies in the use of textured coatings on the walls and ceilings. Hanging above the heads of people whose houses were built or remodeled in the 1950s – 1970s are what came to be known as “popcorn” ceilings, which are well known to contain asbestos. Asbestos can similarly be found in stucco and other textured walls.
This is true not just in homes, but also in municipal and commercial buildings, as well. After a Paris fire in 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité that claimed the lives of 126 people, there was a trend throughout Europe and the U.S. of using so-called “salamander” decorations in public buildings. These took the form of large murals, friezes, and other forms of art that – according to an article in the June 12, 1897, issue of Pharmaceutical Journal – were “made wholly from asbestos.” Buildings from that era may still contain these asbestos decorations, with few people ever realizing it.
Avoid Decorating with Asbestos This Holiday Season
If you suspect that your decorations may contain asbestos, or that there may be asbestos in your attic, walls and or ceiling, here are some practical ways to handle it:
- Avoid storing decorations and other items in parts of your home where asbestos might exist.
- Responsibly dispose of any old decorations that contain asbestos.
- Have textured walls and ceilings tested to find out if they contain asbestos.
- If your home does have asbestos, contact a licensed professional with experience in asbestos abatement.
Doing these things will help ensure you and your loved ones have a safe and happy holidays for years to come.