If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you know this scene:
Dorothy and the gang emerge from the deep, dark woods and see a field of red poppies and, beyond it, Emerald City. All in brilliant Technicolor.
Yelping and laughing, they skip through the hills of flowers to the last stretch of the Yellow Brick Road. Their long journey has finally come to an end.
And then Dorothy slows and stops. The girl from Kansas yawns and stretches, putting her hand to her forehead. “Ohh…I can’t run anymore. I’m so sleepy.” Then she abruptly collapses next to Toto in a bed of the blood-red poppies. The Cowardly Lion collapses next, so tired his feet remain stuck into the air. Frightened, the Tin Man and Scarecrow call for help from someone, anyone.
These poppies were a trap carefully placed by the Wicked Witch, and meant to lull Dorothy into sleep before she reached the Emerald City. And it worked, for awhile. Then a semi-transparent Glinda the Good Witch of the North appeared, waved her magic wand, and woke Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion. How?
Thousands of years ago, only the wealthiest rules possessed the means to weave fabric from the slivers of asbestos’ silicate fibers. Rulers of the Neo-Persian Empire would impress guests when they cleaned napkins simply by throwing them into a fire. Charlemagne used the woven mineral as a tablecloth. Marco Polo recorded a vein of natural asbestos made into fabric”…which cannot be burnt if it is thrown into the fire.”
Use of asbestos really gained momentum during the Industrial Revolution.
Once mass production became possible and universal, engineers garnished anything and everything with asbestos: joint compound, tiles, cement, bricks, pipes, drywall, lawn furniture, pipe insulation, you name it. With a melting point between 700 and 1900 degrees Fahrenheit, asbestos worked well as a fire-proofing medium…and it was cheap!
However, as demand for asbestos increased, researchers noticed unusually high levels of, uh, death among those working most directly with it, specifically the asbestos miners. It didn’t take doctors long to figure out the cause. By the 1920s, the industry had made some concessions to its workers, but these were more gestures than anything: increased ventilation, rudimentary personal protection equipment, and (minimal) compensatory pay for illnesses related to asbestos exposure.
Those documented dangers didn’t slow down its popularity.
Hundreds of uses were found for this “miracle” substance, and companies discovered fluffy shreds of asbestos made beautiful artificial snow, a popular decoration for Christmas. Before asbestos snow, Christmas revelers (and Hollywood) relied on crushed and painted potato flakes or corn flakes. This makeshift snow substitute looked terrible and, in the case of film-making, made so much noise that actors had to overdub snowy scenes in post-production.
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For 1939’s Wizard of Oz, director Victor Fleming noticed asbestos snow not only resembled tufts of authentic snowflakes, but it fell with absolute silence. Asbestos snow wasn’t replaced for safety reasons, but in favor of cheaper, easy-to-use spray snow, contained in aerosol cans and safer than the boxed versions.
Asbestos is not a toxic relic, but remains in many homes and buildings.
Asbestos found its way into American homes built as recently as the 80s (later, in a few cases). If your home is more than 30 years old, chances are you have asbestos sealing your ductwork, insulating your electrical wiring, or embedded in that textured ceiling.
As long as it remains undisturbed, people needn’t worry about the asbestos in their homes. However, during demolition or renovation, when asbestos material is jostled and fibers permeate the air, people need to be asbestos-aware. In those cases, trained demolition crews (or smart homeowners) wear plenty of protective gear to prevent exposure and follow the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s guidelines.