Douglas Trumbull’s Mesothelioma Death Shows Asbestos Lurks in Surprising Places

An under-construction movie set may or may not hold asbestos exposure risks.

Some people may consider mesothelioma a disease caused by dangerous occupations. In reality, average jobs and other common environments could harbor asbestos. Anyone exposed to asbestos can develop mesothelioma. In fact, some big names in the entertainment industry have brought renewed focus to the disease.

The most recent name to raise awareness about mesothelioma is Douglas Trumbull. In February 2022, the science-fiction film icon lost his battle with mesothelioma. The pioneering visual effects artist died after a two-year battle with the disease. He was 79.

Unknown Exposure Led to Battle With Mesothelioma

Reports do not explain if or where Trumbull came into contact with asbestos. Mesothelioma has a latency period of 10 to 50 years, so he could have been exposed to asbestos at any point in his career. He may have also come in contact with it from any number of consumer products.

Trumbull’s career in visual effects took off at the age of 23, when Stanley Kubrick hired him to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He would go on to earn Academy Award nominations for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner.

Trumbull would direct movies as well, before leaving the industry in 1983 for 30 years. When away from Hollywood, he developed Universal Studios’ Back to the Future: The Ride.

Trumbull was in the film industry during the early ages of computer-generated imagery (CGI). At the time, filmmakers used CGI sparingly, if at all. Handcrafted effects — from building sets and models to camera effects — were needed for some classic science fiction movies. Trumbull may have handled asbestos while building pieces for the complex effects he created.

For example, some of the effects for 2001 needed custom fabrication, such as the “Star Gate” scene at the end of the film. To make this shot work, Trumbull manufactured a six-foot-tall piece of sheet metal with a narrow slit through it. Metal workers may have used protective gear that contains asbestos to guard against high heat.

Often, creating practical visual effects relied on some creative solutions. Fake snow during the 1930s, for example, was made out of asbestos fibers. Trumbull had a long history as a visual effects designer during a time of widespread asbestos use across many industries. These conditions provided opportunities for Trumbull to encounter asbestos. Yet, work may not have been Trumbull’s only potential source of asbestos exposure.

Secondary Exposure Can Lead to Mesothelioma

Trumbull may have been exposed at work, but he may also have encountered asbestos through secondary exposure. Secondary asbestos exposure happens when a person working with asbestos brings it home on their clothing, in their hair or on their body. A family member may breathe in the dust, creating a risk for mesothelioma.

Douglas Trumbull’s father, Donald, may have unknowingly created secondary asbestos exposure in the family home. Donald also worked in the film industry and was a visual effects supervisor on The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939. The Wizard of Oz, and other films from the era, used asbestos to make fake snow.

When World War II broke out, Donald found himself working in the aviation industry.

Both the aviation and automobile industries are known to have used asbestos in different capacities. In fact, aviation and automobile mechanics are high-risk jobs for asbestos exposure. Donald may have worked with or been exposed to asbestos on a daily basis.

With Donald’s extensive work in the aviation industry, he could have unknowingly brought asbestos home to his family. No publicly available information confirms this theory, but his career held multiple exposure risks. It remains a possibility that Donald may have exposed his family to asbestos, potentially contributing to his son’s eventual mesothelioma diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Does Not Discriminate

Douglas Trumbull’s life had several opportunities for asbestos exposure. One of those sources could have been his dad. A life of moviemaking did not exempt Trumbull from the dangers of asbestos, and his mesothelioma emphasized this unfortunate point. A wide variety of jobs carry asbestos exposure risks. Anyone exposed to asbestos can develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Douglas Trumbull isn’t the only famous person to get mesothelioma, either. Actor Steve McQueen, composer Leonard Bernstein and NFL player Merlin Olsen all died from mesothelioma.

To protect everyone from asbestos, important steps should be taken. It starts with awareness and understanding that asbestos exposure can affect anyone. It isn’t exclusively confined to certain jobs.

The United States has regulations in place covering asbestos use, but no total ban has passed. Until it has, people may still come in contact with the dangerous mineral. To get involved and raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos, the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation has many opportunities.