8 Movies You Didn’t Know Used Asbestos, Endangering Cast and Crew

Awareness & Research

Few people know that asbestos, a hazardous mineral, was used extensively in the film industry and was present on the sets of many classic movies. Several films you’ve heard of, and many you haven’t, used asbestos, which brought serious health risks to cast and crew. 

Asbestos was used in construction and manufacturing due to its fire-resistant properties, and can still be found in older buildings today. It was only in recent years that its health risks became well-known.

Asbestos exposure causes many diseases, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.  Although its use is now restricted, it is not banned in the U.S.

8 Classic Movies That Used Asbestos

Here are a few of the most recognizable films that used the toxic mineral on sets and in film equipment.

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The iconic film “The Wizard of Oz” used asbestos in its set pieces and equipment. The fake snow in the poppy field scene, where Dorothy and her friends fall asleep, also contained asbestos. The crew created the snow by spraying a mixture of foam and chrysotile, a type of asbestos, over the set. “The Wizard of Oz” has been a beloved film for generations. Its use of asbestos was only the start of a worrying trend in Hollywood.

2. Citizen Kane (1941)

“Citizen Kane” is often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Lesser known is the use of asbestos in its snowy scenes. The child actor who portrayed a young Kane spent considerable time surrounded by asbestos. The dangers of asbestos were not as well-known then. Today, the reckless use of asbestos in these films make them harder to watch.

3. Holiday Inn (1942)

“Holiday Inn” is a classic musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film is famous for winning an Academy Award for the song “White Christmas.” The unfortunate reality is that asbestos was responsible for the magical holiday scenery. Asbestos snow was prevalent in several of the movie’s winter scenes. It would also not be the last time Bing Crosby belted out holiday hits while asbestos floated in the air.

4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This beloved holiday film tells the story of George Bailey, a man who finds out what life would be like if he had never been born. Unlike other films, this movie’s crew did not use asbestos for snow. Instead, they used chrysotile asbestos in the set dressing.

The film used a new combination of materials to create snow. These included Foamite from fire extinguishers, soap, water and sugar. This method likely led to less airborne asbestos exposure on set. However, as the crew broke down the asbestos within set materials, exposure was more likely. 

5. White Christmas (1954)

The musical “White Christmas” features Bing Crosby once again singing the titular song. The health risk from asbestos in this film came from the snowfall used in many of the musical scenes. By today’s standards, watching the performers sing with asbestos in the air is scary. Although Crosby never suffered from his exposures, how the rest of the cast and crew fared is unclear.

6. Goldfinger (1964)

The James Bond film “Goldfinger” is famous for featuring a murder using gold paint. The film used asbestos boards in its set construction. Ronald Sharpe, a painter on the set, worked next to carpenters who would cut up the boards. As a painter, he did not receive personal protective equipment to avoid inhaling dust. He later developed mesothelioma and died at age 59. His widow, Barbara, sued his former employers for mesothelioma financial compensation.

7. Le Mans (1971)

“Le Mans” is a racing film featuring Steve McQueen as a race car driver in a dramatic auto race. As part of the props, asbestos lined the racing suits and helmets McQueen used in the movie. Asbestos in racing gear prevented the equipment from catching fire after an accident. After years of wearing racing suits and asbestos exposure in the U.S. Marine Corps, McQueen died in 1980 from mesothelioma. 

8. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, many regard “Full Metal Jacket” as one of the best Vietnam War movies of all time. The filmmakers shot part of the film at Beckton Gas Works in London. Although scheduled for demolition due to asbestos, the crew shot on the site before it was taken care of.

One of the stars, Matthew Modine, commented on the set’s toxicity.

“That was one of the most toxic places I’ve ever been in my life,” said Modine in an interview with ReelBlend. “We’d be having a cup of tea in the morning and a pastry, and the truck would go by, you know, one of the film trucks, and all the dust would fall in. You just drank the tea and ate the pastry and didn’t think too much about the dust. There was asbestos everywhere from the buildings that were knocked down. Nobody thought about it being something that was dangerous.”

Raising Awareness of Asbestos Health Risks

While the films on this list may be beloved classics, it’s important to remember the human cost of their production. The use of asbestos in these films has had a lasting impact on the health of the cast and crew members who worked on them. 

Fake Snow Made from Asbestos
Asbestos was used to create life-like snow scenes in movies, but the toxic product also made its way into homes.

The toxic material was prominent in the film industry for decades. Its use often came without safety precautions or a grasp of its dangers to human health.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the health risks of asbestos exposure became public. Afterward, the use of the material in the film industry and other industries declined. However, the legacy of its use continues to affect the health of those exposed to it during its heyday in Hollywood.

The health risks of asbestos exposure are very real. We must continue to raise awareness about its dangers so that future generations can avoid the tragic consequences of its use.