The risks of asbestos exposure from vintage products – and beyond
As an enthusiast of all things vintage as well as a specialist asbestos disease solicitor, I am still shocked to hear about products which contain asbestos – which still happens regularly. I regularly attend vintage fairs and festivals and enjoy nothing better than poking around in antique centres and reclamation yards! However, whilst the vintage scene is very much ‘in vogue’, few people realise that products and artefacts from years gone by contain asbestos and are therefore potentially very dangerous to use, or even have around.
How I first came to understand the potential dangers of vintage products
A few years ago I bought a black Bakelite telephone from the 1940’s. It is in good condition considering its age with no visible cracks or damage. However, it’s only fairly recently that I have become aware that it may contain asbestos.
Bakelite, invented in 1907 by a New York chemist called Leo Baekeland, was an early synthetic plastic product made from formaldehyde and phenol resin. Unfortunately asbestos was sometimes added as a filler instead of wood. Bakelite products can therefore contain up to 5% amosite (brown asbestos) which is extremely dangerous, but it is impossible to know which Bakelite products, or how many, contain asbestos.
Going further down the rabbit hole
Since this revelation I have become aware that other Bakelite products also contain asbestos. These can include cameras, toys, radios, jewellery, door handles; even toilet seats and cisterns. If in good condition they are low risk but, as with anything containing asbestos, it is not known when they could become damaged, therefore releasing asbestos dust and fibres into the air.
I regularly see old hairdryers and home products such as ironing boards at vintage fairs, both of which also contain asbestos. Old hairdryers, for example, had a heating element inside which was a fire hazard, so as a protective measure the element was sometimes insulated with asbestos. With use and the passage of time, this insulation may have become friable causing asbestos dust and fibres to be released if the hairdryers are handled or used. In the case of ironing boards, they had a heat protective mat to stand the iron on. These were made from asbestos insulation board which was made up of up to 40% asbestos. Again, with use the boards became chipped, cracked and damaged, releasing asbestos fibres.
More recently, historical artefacts such as gas masks which were used in World War II were found to contain both blue and white asbestos. There were reports of gas masks being used in history lessons in schools.
It has even come to light that certain brands of talcum powder were, throughout the 20th century, contaminated with asbestos, talc having been mined where asbestos was also found and mined. I have seen vintage beauty products and tins on sale at events, so it’s worth knowing the dangers their contents may pose.
Furthermore, asbestos was used for many other products including cigarette filters, oven gloves and around oven door seals and fire surrounds. It was used in components for cars such as brake linings and clutch fittings. Vintage car enthusiasts should be aware of the potential to be exposed to asbestos on this basis.
As we approach the festive season we should all be mindful that vintage Christmas decorations, again which are becoming increasingly popular, can contain or be coated in fake snow which is actually white chrysotile asbestos. I saw a story on social media recently about how someone had seen a box of fake snow (which was actually asbestos) on sale on a well known auction site. Asbestos snow products were used in many films, perhaps the best known being The Wizard of Oz and White Christmas. However, vintage fake snow may simply be raw asbestos, so anyone owning these products should take advice in relation to sealing and proper disposal.
What this all means and where else you may need to look
A colleague in our Wealth Protection team raised an interesting point with me recently about how easy it may be for people to be exposed to asbestos from vintage goods and artefacts in the homes of their elderly relatives. The team often act for the Estates of people who have died and are sometimes responsible for dealing with the clearance of properties and overseeing the sale for the Estate. Greater awareness of the presence of asbestos in products such as those above is therefore crucial, as it is foreseeable that people could unknowingly be exposed to asbestos from such products.
I think it is also worth mentioning that asbestos containing materials remain in many houses and buildings built prior to the year 2000. Whilst it is generally known that asbestos can be found in lagging on pipework and boilers it was also used in fire places and fuse boxes, in asbestos cement products such as roofing tiles and corrugated sheets often used on garages and sheds as well as for soffits, soil stacks and downpipes.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who was in the process of renovating his house. He told me how he had sanded down artex on the ceiling in his living room. Artex and other textured coatings contained asbestos – usually a relatively low level - but sadly illnesses such as mesothelioma can develop even after low levels of exposure.
Asbestos insulation boards on the other hand contained high levels of asbestos, and can often be found in older buildings as they were used to clad walls, under windows, and for fire doors.
Another common use of asbestos insulation board which many people do not know about was that it was used for bath panels. Again, if this is in good condition the risk is low but insulation board can easily become damaged and cracked.
I am working on a case at the moment where there was an asbestos insulation board bath panel in a council property in which my client lived. Her sister accidentally kicked a hole in the bath panel when she was young. They didn’t know at the time the bath panel was asbestos insulation board but it was left in situ, in its damaged state, for many years subsequently.
The Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST) have produced a leaflet which contains more information and helpful guidance about what to do if you are concerned about asbestos containing materials in your home or own any products containing asbestos. Their leaflet can be found at www.asbestosheritage.co.uk/asbestos-in-the-20th-century/