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Commercial use of asbestos began in 1879, and in 1935, the first cases of asbestosis and asbestos-caused lung cancer were diagnosed in the United States. In the early 1970s, the government placed a moratorium on the production of most asbestos products, but the use of asbestos in manufacturing continued well into the 1980s, and in some cases, asbestos has been found in products today.
Attributed mostly as a disease that affects workers exposed to asbestos because of specific occupations, including most notably veterans and construction workers, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases don’t discriminate against anyone who may have been exposed to the deadly fiber in more unknown use cases. For example, film industry professionals are also at risk and have fallen victim to diseases like mesothelioma due to a hidden history of asbestos exposure in Hollywood.
Until the late 1920s, filmmakers would use cotton batting to create snow effects. In 1928, before asbestos was widely known as a dangerous substance, a firefighter pointed out that cotton was a fire hazard on sets and suggested the use of asbestos as a “safe” alternative. Unfortunately, the idea caught on in Hollywood, and from the 1930s to the 1950s, asbestos snow was manufactured and marketed to the industry with names like “Pure White” and “Snow Drift.”
Perhaps the most famous film application of this is the Wizard of Oz (1939), where asbestos snow was blown on the cast in the poppy field scene. In 1942, asbestos snow fell all around the cast and crew of Holiday Inn.
On the Set
While a chemical snow called foamite was invented for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), asbestos was used to dress other parts of the set, according to Life Magazine writer Helen Robinson.
In the 1964 Bond film Goldfinger (and likely other Bond films), asbestos was used in special effect boards and piping that lined the sets, which carpenters would cut up.
The CBS Network facilities also contained asbestos, and actor Ed Lauter, who worked on-site at CBS for more than 20 years, died from mesothelioma in 2013.
Because of its fireproof quality, asbestos was used for a variety of stunt-related manufacturing and for safety at theaters. As a safety precaution in large proscenium theaters, fire curtains made with asbestos were used from the 1960s through the 1980s. Stunt men like Steve McQueen, who was a victim of mesothelioma himself, were exposed to asbestos when wearing flame-retardant suits in the 1960s.
What About Now?
Many filmmakers leverage old, existing buildings and other structures for locations that likely contain asbestos insulation, which could pose a threat to the cast and crew if disturbed in any way.
During World War II, the demand for asbestos use for the military increased, and its overt use in the film industry subsequently decreased. As the deadly nature of asbestos was further studied and confirmed, it was used less and less. However, the substance has yet to be banned in the United States.