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You might be surprised to learn that in the early 1900s, filmmakers used asbestos for fake snow. Why did Hollywood put everyone in danger?

Asbestos Has A Bad Reputation in Hollywood

You might be surprised to learn that in the early 1900s, filmmakers used asbestos for fake snow. It wasn’t just sprinkled off in the distance. Actors and crew members were directly exposed, and many people – including children – played with the asbestos as if it were real snow. 

For the holidays, it’s Hollywood’s job to give people the experience of a dreamy, white Christmas. Since the dangers weren’t well known, and asbestos made for some convincing snow, nobody thought anything of it. At least not until decades later, when actors were diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Some of the Hollywood celebrities who were diagnosed with mesothelioma were well-known in their day, although fake snow wasn’t the only source of exposure in the industry: 

  • Ed Lauter (1938-2013): Actor and comedian.
  • Paul Gleason (1939-2006): Best known for his role as Richard Vernon from The Breakfast Club; also had roles in Trading Places, All My Children, and Die Hard.
  • Steve McQueen (1930-1980): Starred in classics, like The Great Escape, The Thomas Crowne Affair, The Magnificent Seven, and Bullitt.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It typically takes decades for anyone to know they’ve got it, but most people don’t live more than a few years past their diagnosis. However, treatment can help people live a little longer.

Asbestos fibers are sharp, and when a person breathes them in, the fibers become lodged in their lungs or abdomen where they irritate tissue for an extended period of time. When the tissue becomes diseased, cancer develops and grows aggressively.

The historical use of asbestos in Hollywood

After failing to find other substances to use as fake snow, Hollywood crews went straight for the asbestos. White corn flakes would have been a good option, but the noise was too much when people walked over the flakes. 

Some of the most well-known scenes in famous movies exposed the actors to asbestos. For example, in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies and Glinda, The Good Witch, wakes her up with heavy snowfall. That snow was made from chrysotile asbestos.

The final scene in Holiday Inn (1942) shows falling snow made from asbestos while the song White Christmas plays. Perhaps the most popular Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), used asbestos snow on set as well.

Other movies that used asbestos include:

  • Citizen Kane (1941): In this movie, the child actor who played the young Kane was extensively exposed to asbestos while filming.
  • White Christmas (1954): Perhaps the most popular musical that made Bing Crosby’s song famous, this movie featured plenty of asbestos snow throughout the various scenes. Surprisingly, Crosby never developed symptoms of mesothelioma.
  • Goldfinger (1964): One of the most popular James Bond movies used boards made from asbestos on the set. A painter named Ronald Sharpe was working next to the crew as they cut those boards up, and since he wasn’t given any PPE to wear, he developed mesothelioma and died.
  • Le Mans (1971): During the race scenes, McQueen wore a racing suit and helmet lined in asbestos. Since asbestos has fire-resistant properties, it was used to prevent a fire after an accident. McQueen was also exposed to asbestos while in the Marines, and he died from mesothelioma in 1980.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987): It’s surprising to see a movie made in the late 1980s that exposed the crew to asbestos, and this was just a bad call on choosing a location. A portion of the movie was filmed at Beckton Gas Works, which was scheduled to be demolished because of asbestos. There were other buildings that had been knocked down that sent asbestos dust flying into their food and drinks and they didn’t think anything of it.

As a side note, it’s worth pointing out that since asbestos made amazingly convincing fake snow, it was also used to flock Christmas decorations made prior to the 1960s, as well as Christmas trees. If you have any vintage decorations, it’s best to get rid of them just in case they might be contaminated.

Thankfully, Hollywood doesn’t use asbestos anymore

It’s horrifying to think that so many people were exposed to asbestos for the sake of Christmas aesthetics and poor filming choices, but they really didn’t know any better. Today’s fake snow is made using non-toxic materials that still look convincing enough to make an audience feel more festive.

While asbestos can still be found in construction materials and old buildings, at least Hollywood doesn’t intentionally use this dangerous mineral anymore.

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